FOR THE RAVENS' DEFENSE, IT WAS A SEASON FOR OVERCOMING PAIN. THE NFL'S 2011 DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR, TERRELL SUGGS, PARTIALLY TORE HIS right Achilles tendon last April and missed the season's first six games. Ray Lewis tore his right triceps in Week 6 and, amid reports that he might retire after the season-ending injury, continued to give pregame speeches en route to returning for the playoffs. Cornerback Lardarius Webb (torn ACL, Week 6) was shut down; linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (sprained right ankle, Week 12) missed three games; linebacker Jameel McClain (spinal contusion, Week 14) went on injured reserve. In all, nine of Baltimore's 11 projected defensive starters missed at least a game.
A team that had been defined by defense (from 1999 through 2011 the Ravens allowed an NFL-best 17.0 points per game), was suddenly in need of an offensive boost. And Baltimore got it. Although the points-allowed jumped to 21.5, the Ravens' offense averaged 24.9. Despite a roller-coaster season from QB Joe Flacco, receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith combined for 1,776 yards and 12 touchdowns. Running back Ray Rice was consistently excellent, and Justin Tucker set a Ravens rookie record with a field goal percentage of 90.9.
Smith's play was remarkable: On Sept. 23, less than 24 hours after his younger brother Tevin was killed in a motorcycle accident, Smith made six catches for 127 yards and two TDs to help the Ravens beat the Patriots. That was the first of four straight narrow wins (by a total of 13 points) and started a stretch in which Baltimore won eight of nine to build a needed cushion. The run included a club record for points in a drubbing of Oakland, a gritty win over the division rival Steelers and, in Week 12 against San Diego, the play of the season. On fourth-and-29, with the Ravens down three on their own 37-yard line and 1:59 to play, Flacco dumped a one-yard pass to Rice. He eluded several defenders and shimmied through a hole—"Hey Diddle Diddle, Ray Rice up the middle," Rice described later—to convert. Baltimore would tie the game, then win it on an overtime field goal.
At 9--2, Baltimore seemed poised to clinch the AFC North, but its first three-game losing streak since 2009 led to the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Flacco's 98-yard pick six in a 34--17 loss to the Broncos in Week 15 left the QB lying motionless on the turf and spawned a Flaccoing craze in which fans shared photos of themselves on the floor. "We're a 9--5 football team, and we feel like we're 0--14," said Flacco after that game.
Baltimore, though, showed its resilience in its season finale, crushing the Giants to lock up a second straight division title and the AFC's fourth seed. The 10--6 Ravens—with a still wounded defense and a seemingly inconsistent quarterback—would soon turn to the playoffs, determined to keep defying the odds.