RE­VER­SAL of FOR­TUNE

A loss to the Browns threat­ened to de­rail the Ravens’ sea­son. In­stead, it brought them closer to­gether.

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS - [email protected] Today, 1 p.m. | TV: Chs. 13, 9 | Ra­dio: 97.9 FM; 1090 AM By Childs Walker

Their dazzling young quar­ter­back had thrown two in­ter­cep­tions. Their proud de­fense had been evis­cer­ated for 530 yards. The score­board — Browns 40, Ravens 25 — told a harsh story about where they stood af­ter four weeks.

Coach John Har­baugh laid it out plainly in the postgame locker room, telling his Ravens: “Right now, we’re not a very good team.”

Even glo­ri­ous NFL sea­sons usu­ally bring a team to at least one cross­roads, that mo­ment when the whole en­ter­prise feels like it could tum­ble off into a ditch.

The 2019 Ravens faced such a reck­on­ing in the hours and days af­ter their Sept. 29 loss to the Browns. They’ve won 10 games in a row since and po­si­tioned them­selves as the Su­per Bowl favorite, with a team-record 12 Pro Bowl se­lec­tions and a front-run­ner for Most Valu­able Player in quar­ter­back La­mar Jack­son.

But as they pre­pared for their re­match Sun­day with the Browns, Ravens play­ers said they could not have achieved such run­away suc­cess with­out tak­ing a painful look in the mir­ror.

“That was the bru­tally hon­est truth,” Pro Bowl guard Mar­shal Yanda said, re­flect­ing on Har­baugh’s words af­ter the loss. “We had a long way to go. We had to im­prove and change some things, roll in some dif­fer­ent guys. And I feel we stepped up to the chal­lenge.”

The Ravens have “plenty to play for” Sun­day, in Yanda’s words, not least the chance to se­cure home-field ad­van­tage through­out the AFC play­offs. But they’re also mo­ti­vated to prove the Browns loss was the one true anom­aly in their sea­son.

“We beat our­selves that game,” Ravens wide re­ceiver Wil­lie Snead IV said. “Turn­ing the ball over, not be­ing smart. We let them get up on top of us. … That was the last

time we lost, so I feel like this is another state­ment, if you want to put it that way.”

To a man, the Ravens say they bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to the team from that Septem­ber af­ter­noon in Bal­ti­more.

They’re dif­fer­ent in ways both seen and unseen.

Play­ers cred­ited the team’s front of­fice, led by gen­eral man­ager Eric DeCosta, for at­tack­ing ros­ter prob­lems rather than al­low­ing them to metas­ta­size. The Ravens im­me­di­ately signed lineback­ers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort to sta­bi­lize the mid­dle of their de­fense, throw­ing the vet­eran Bynes in for 42 snaps the next Sun­day in Pitts­burgh. Two weeks later, they made an op­por­tunis­tic trade for cor­ner­back Mar­cus Peters, the brash risk-taker they were lack­ing. Even as their win­ning streak mounted in Novem­ber, they added in­te­rior line­men Do­mata Peko Sr. and Justin El­lis to give them greater depth and brute force against the run.

“Shout out to the [gen­eral man­ager] and up­stairs for mak­ing those moves,” line­backer Matthew Judon said. “They saw flaws or lit­tle weak­nesses that we had, and they righted the ship. They got some peo­ple in here that helped us.”

Be­yond the prac­ti­cal im­prove­ments, play­ers who were there from the start forged deeper emo­tional ties that have man­i­fested in the col­lec­tive joy we see from the Ravens week af­ter week. As the play­ers tell it, there would have been no sun­glasses on the side­line or “Big Truss” with­out their col­lec­tive re­sponse to the Browns loss.

The Ravens seemed gen­uinely shaken in the mo­ments af­ter they walked off the field at M&T Bank Sta­dium. De­fen­sive play­ers hud­dled around the locker of safety Tony Jef­fer­son, hash­ing through what had gone awry. Safety Earl Thomas III con­fronted de­fen­sive tackle Brandon Wil­liams, who had not played in the game be­cause of a knee in­jury.

Jack­son re­called the con­ver­sa­tions that en­sued over the next few days. “We lose,” he said. “So, it’s like, ‘We have to tighten up. We know what we have. We just have to play ball. We can’t go out there play­ing not our full po­ten­tial.’ So, we talked to each other. We got with one another.”

The Ravens cer­tainly did not know they would rise from that dis­ap­point­ment to win ev­ery game they played over the next 2½ months. But they banded to­gether at their low­est mo­ment rather than dis­in­te­grate.

“We heard all the talk and all the chit-chat­ter [about] how bad we were,” said Judon, who was se­lected for his first Pro Bowl on Tues­day. “We just gelled to­gether as a team, and we came to­gether as a team. I think that’s what helped us and sparked this run that we’re on right now. A lot of peo­ple think that it’s fake or it’s just for the cam­eras. But we love each other like that when there are no cam­eras around. That’s how we love each other, and that’s how we speak to each other, and that’s how we en­cour­age one another.”

“We kind of grew a lot from that mo­ment,” run­ning back Mark In­gram II said. “We were 2-2, and we pretty much said that our sea­son could go one of two ways: We can change it and we can have suc­cess, or we can fold and fail. So, we came to­gether, and we just went back to the draw­ing board. We kept work­ing one day at a time, grind­ing one day at a time, one game at a time, and here we are, 10 wins later.”

The Ravens have trounced op­po­nents by a league-best 15 points per game (18 points per game since their Week 4 loss to Cleve­land). They could go down as a his­tor­i­cally great team, ac­cord­ing to the DVOA statis­tic for over­all ef­fi­ciency de­vel­oped by the an­a­lyt­ics web site Foot­bal­lOut­siders.com.

Their evo­lu­tion is all the more strik­ing when con­trasted with the Browns’ col­lapse into fa­mil­iar dis­ar­ray. Cleve­land was the NFL’s pre­sea­son darling, with an­a­lysts rav­ing about the star power on the ros­ter and quar­ter­back Baker May­field gen­er­at­ing MVP buzz al­most as quickly as he ac­cu­mu­lated com­mer­cial ap­pear­ances. The Browns ap­peared ready to make good on the hype when they shel­lacked the Ravens.

Since then, they’ve won four and lost six, dealt with the in­famy of de­fen­sive end Myles Gar­rett swing­ing his hel­met at the head of Pitts­burgh Steelers quar­ter­back Ma­son Ru­dolph and faced ques­tions about Fred­die Kitchens’ job se­cu­rity at the end of his first year as coach. They be­came the only team to com­plete this decade with­out a sin­gle win­ning sea­son.

Kitchens didn’t show much in­ter­est in re­flect­ing on the lost prom­ise of his team’s sea­son when he spoke with Bal­ti­more re­porters via con­fer­ence call Wed­nes­day.

“Again, whether it’s bad or good, we try to stay in the mo­ment and just re­al­ize that ev­ery­thing we do is in the mo­ment, and we can’t do any­thing about the fu­ture or the past,” he said.

Kitchens did ac­knowl­edge the “noise from out­side” that’s haunted his team for much of the sea­son.

“So, that’s what we’ve been preach­ing,” he said. “And hope­fully, our guys have taken heed to it from the stand­point of, ‘You can only con­trol what you can con­trol, and you con­trol how you pre­pare and how you play on Sun­days.’ ”

Har­baugh has faced a more pleasant prob­lem, work­ing to keep his team fo­cused on tan­gi­ble goals while the rest of the foot­ball world cel­e­brates the Ravens for tram­pling top op­po­nents, run­ning the NFL’s most cre­ative of­fense and build­ing around Jack­son’s uni­corn skill set.

New ac­co­lades roll in ev­ery week as the Ravens near the end of per­haps the great­est reg­u­lar sea­son in team history. But Har­baugh was in no mood to puff his team up as they pre­pared for the Browns re­match. Asked how much credit his staff de­served for trans­form­ing the de­fense since Week 4, he noted that the story is far from over. The Ravens could draw one step closer to the con­clu­sion they want by turn­ing the ta­bles on their AFC North neme­sis, but they have to do it on the field.

“They scorched us last game,” Har­baugh said. “So, we have to stop th­ese guys be­fore we start talk­ing about who de­serves credit for any­thing.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Ravens quar­ter­back La­mar Jack­son, cen­ter, throws a pass as he is about to be tack­led by the Browns’ Olivier Ver­non, right, in the fourth quar­ter of their 40-25 loss to Cleve­land on Sept. 29.

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Ravens quar­ter­back La­mar Jack­son is sacked by Browns safety Da­mar­i­ous Ran­dall in the first quar­ter of Bal­ti­more’s Week 4 loss.

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