(Sports Network) - Perhaps the Baltimore Ravens got in the habit of leaning ontheir defense a little too much seeing as the formula worked so well over adecade ago.
After all, the 2000 Super Bowl-winning Ravens were a formidable stronghold,leading the league in scoring defense with a unit that featured names such asRod Woodson, Tony Siragusa, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper.
There was also a 25-year linebacker named Ray Lewis, who led Baltimore intackles that season and went on to be named MVP after the Ravens bested theNew York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
Defense became the identity of the Ravens thanks to the now 37-year-old Lewis,as well as safety Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. Under Lewis' watch,Baltimore put a top-10 defense out onto the field after 2002 (a run thatironically ended this season) and was a constant playoff participant.
But it wasn't enough to get the Ravens back to the Super Bowl. They reachedthe postseason seven times in 11 seasons following the franchise's first evertitle, losing a pair of AFC Championship games in that span.
It was starting to turn into a repetitive and frustrating oh-so-close script.In the five seasons since John Harbaugh took over as head coach, the Ravenslead the NFL with eight playoff wins and six postseason road triumphs. Theyare the only team to make the playoffs in all five seasons.
But something was still missing.
It turned out to be a bit more offense.
Baltimore's need to put points on the board was foreshadowed when Suggs missedthe first six games of the season due to a torn Achilles. He missed anothertwo contests during the season with a torn biceps, the same injury thatsidelined Lewis for the final 10 games of the regular season.
The Ravens came right out of the gate with a 44-point performance in a season-opening win over the Cincinnati Bengals and averaged 26.8 points and 385 yardsper game during a 5-1 start.
Of course, Baltimore still showed it could win with defense in that time,posting a 9-6 win at Kansas City on Oct. 7 thanks in part to four forcedturnovers.
And while the Ravens could still rattle opposing offenses, quarterback JoeFlacco's unit made sure to keep its defense fresh by holding onto the ballthemselves. Baltimore's 16 turnovers were a single-season franchise best andtied for the second fewest in the NFL.
Flacco was a big part of that as he matched a career low with 10 interceptionsdespite passing for a personal-best 3,817 yards this season.
And that didn't come on dinking and dunking either. Flacco had five 300-yardpassing games to match a team record and the Ravens ranked third in the NFLwith 72 plays of 20-or-more yards as running back Ray Rice continued to breakoff big plays and wide receiver Torrey Smith developed into a constant deepthreat to compliment No. 1 wideout Anquan Boldin.
Baltimore's ability to go deep gave it an energy that it lacked before.
"When you give them the opportunity one-on-one to go up and make plays andthey make them, it gets them going," said Flacco. "It gets the other guysgoing. 'Hey, Joe's going to put the ball up there today, we've got to go getit.' ... I've got to give those guys a chance to make a play. That's whatthey're out there for, and that's what they get paid to do."
With Flacco turning in consistent efforts and the Ravens scoring at a pacethat ultimately produced a club-record 398 points this season, one would havefigured that not much was needed to get the offense ready for the playoffs.
Baltimore had other ideas, however, and made a bold move prior to its third-to-last game of the regular season when offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wasfired. He was replaced by quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, though the move didnot pay off right away as the Ravens were held to 278 yards in a 34-17 setbackto the Denver Broncos on Dec. 16.
However, under Caldwell's direction the following week, the Ravens notched aseason-high 533 yards of offense versus the Giants, the third-highest outputin team history thanks to a 300-yard passing game from Flacco and a pair of100-plus efforts on the ground from Rice and fellow running back BernardPierce.
Under Caldwell, the Ravens offense has averaged 406.2 yards and 26.2 pointsper game and Flacco has looked like a franchise quarterback set for a bigpayday.
"When he made that decision, that was something that the coach felt was bestfor the team," said Rice. "What coach Caldwell has done has kept the offensesimple and basic. He put the game into Joe Flacco's hands, and Joe has done agreat job -- phenomenal job -- of leading us to where we needed to be. We areright here where we want to be right now."
That was furthered proved in the divisional round rematch between the Ravensand top-seeded Broncos, one that looked as if it was going to end Baltimore'sseason short of its goal once again. However, Flacco beautifully floated apass that Broncos safety Rahim Moore misplayed, allowing the ball to fall intothe hands of Jacoby Jones, who raced for a game-tying 70-yard touchdown with31 seconds left in regulation.
Two overtimes later and Baltimore was on to the AFC Championship thanks to athrilling 38-35 win.
But an improved offense wasn't going to do it alone; the Ravens still neededtheir once-feared defense to produce. That wasn't happening for most of theregular season as Baltimore yielded 20.6 points and 382.3 yards per gamethrough its first 10 contests while battling injury. Baltimore was still 8-2over that span, but that kind of production would not hold up in the playoffs.
In fact only Reed and cornerback Cary Williams were able to start all 16 gameson defense this season and Harbaugh's defense got contributions fromyoungsters such as Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Arthur Jones and CourtneyUpshaw.
"We've probably never tested it as deep as we did this year since we've beenthere. Our young guys always came through," Harbaugh said of the defense.
Thankfully, as Suggs got healthy the Ravens' defense started to click despitelosing Lewis to injury. Cornerback Lardarius Webb also landed on injuredreserve because of a torn ACL and hasn't played since Oct. 8, but Baltimoregave up the fourth-fewest yards per game (299.0) over its final six.
Then came the return of Lewis, who had announced he would retire at season'send. That brought the defensive unit together once again and the formerDefensive Player of Year made a game-high 13 tackles in a 24-9 win over theIndianapolis Colts in the wild card round.
He also got to do a victorious "Squirrel Dance" one more time in front of thehome crowd.
"Ray is a Super Bowl MVP. His leadership, obviously, is really important forus. His leadership off the field and understanding how to approach a game likethis is big for our younger guys," Harbaugh said. "Also, as a football player,he has played really well. He's played just like he's always played."
And while Denver did put up 398 yards of offense the following week, it wastwo interceptions by Corey Graham that contributed to the win. His secondpick, in fact, helped set up the game-winning field goal.
Up next was an old nemesis in the New England Patriots, who knocked the Ravensout of the AFC Championship Game the previous season when then-Baltimorekicker Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying 32-yard field goal try wide left.
Baltimore was still a confident bunch. It had won in New England before in theplayoffs and had handled Pats quarterback Tom Brady before. The former MVP hadtwo touchdown passes to five interceptions in the previous two playoffmeetings and would not have his day in the rematch.
Brady threw for 320 yards with a touchdown pass, but was picked off twice asthe Ravens posted a 28-13 win. Baltimore's defense shut New England out in thesecond half and yielded only one touchdown in the Patriots' four red zonetrips.
Finally, the Ravens had gotten back over the hump.
"There are a lot of people in this league that can't say they've ever gottento this point, so it definitely feels good to get here," Flacco said. "We'vegot a lot of guys on our team that have played long careers, and this will betheir first time here. So, we realize that opportunity and realize how specialit is. That's why we've just got to work hard and make sure we make the mostof it."
The most recent effort may not have been the Ravens' best statistical showing,especially on defense this season, but it was certainly the biggest.
And a perfect fit to Baltimore's new winning formula.