The Baltimore Ravens had enjoyed a nice nine-year run under head coach Brian Billick. During his 1999-2007 tenure, Billick put the franchise on the map after the controversial relocation from Cleveland prior to the 1996 season. He made the playoffs four times and won a Super Bowl in 2000. But after two losing seasons in his final three years, including a dismal 5-11 campaign in 2007, there was a general feeling that it was time for a change. John Harbaugh represented that change and the 2008 Baltimore Ravens began a new era.
The coach wasn’t the only new piece of the puzzle. Baltimore used its first-round draft pick on quarterback Joe Flacco and gave him the keys to the car right out of the gate. Flacco’s numbers weren’t good—he was in the lower half of the league in completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and interception percentage. But he made good progress as the year went along and stabilized the position for the long haul.
Flacco’s top target was 34-year-old Derrick Mason, who caught 80 balls and went over 1,000 yards receiving. Mason was supported by reliable tight end Todd Heap, 26-year-old wideout Mark Clayton and a good rookie running back—Ray Rice caught 33 balls and chipped in to help the running game.
Speaking of that running game—Le’Ron McClain was the best pure fullback in the NFL in 2008 and ran for over 900 yards, while Willis McGahee provided a burst on the outside. The offense overall wasn’t going to scare anyone, but they still ranked 11th in the league in points scored.
That was more than enough for a defense which was one of the NFL’s best and whose lineup was marked with stars. Ray Lewis, the great inside linebacker was 1st-team All-Pro in 2008. Terrell Suggs made the Pro Bowl on the outside in the 3-4 scheme. Another all-time great, Ed Reed, was at free safety and led the league with nine interceptions.
Overseeing it all was a coordinator by the name of Rex Ryan. These Ravens ranked third in the NFL in points allowed and were an immovable force to try and run the football against.
The tough defense was on display in opening wins over bad teams in Cincinnati and Cleveland. The Ravens held the Bengals to 70 yards on the ground in a 17-10 win. Against the Browns, Suggs got two sacks and Reed took an interception to the house to key the 28-10 triumph.
That set up a big Monday Night battle in Pittsburgh, the favorite in the AFC North. Baltimore acquitted themselves well and led 13-3 at the half. But Flacco was sacked five times, the offense allowed a touchdown off a turnover and the result was a 23-20 overtime loss.
Another tough opponent in the Tennessee Titans, who were en route to a 13-3 season, was up next. Once again, the Ravens got a lead but couldn’t close. They led 10-3 after thee quarters but were beaten 13-10 on a late touchdown pass by Kerry Collins. One week later, Baltimore paid a visit to Indianapolis and faced Peyton Manning. For the first time, the defense played poorly and the Ravens dug themselves a 17-0 hole. Forced to the air, Flacco threw three interceptions in a 31-3 loss.
The record was 2-3 and there was no reason to see this Baltimore team as anything special. Things started to tick upward the following week in Miami. This was a good Dolphins team that would win the AFC East in a season that Tom Brady missed because of a torn ACL. But the Ravens played their best game of the year to date. They got 105 yards rushing from McGahee and Flacco stepped up with a 17/23 for 202 yards and no interceptions performance. The result was a decisive 27-13 win.
Lowly Oakland paid a visit to M&T Bank Stadium and Baltimore used its defense and a balanced rushing attack to pound the Raiders 29-10. A week later in Cleveland, the Ravens fell behind 27-13 late in the third quarter. It was time for the offense to carry its share of the load and they responded. Mason caught nine passes for 136 yards. The game was tied by the early part of the fourth quarter and it ended 37-27.
Another strong finish came in a visit to an average Houston Texans team. The Baltimore lead was 19-13 after three quarters. They would intercept four passes though, two from Lewis and blew the game open, 41-13.
The four-game winning streak came to an end against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who became the first team to beat up this Baltimore defense on the ground. The Ravens allowed 207 rush yards and lost 30-10. But they bounced right back the next week at home against playoff-bound Philadelphia. A second-half eruption was keyed by a safety, a 5-zip edge on turnovers and a stunning 107-yard interception return from Reed. The final was 36-7.
Mistake-free football continued to be the order of the day in Cincinnati and Flacco continued to improve. Clayton and Mason combined for 355 receiving yards in a 34-3 rout. Baltimore was riding high at 8-4 as the calendar flipped to December.
The mediocre Washington Redskins came north on the Beltway for a Sunday Night date. Reed got the Ravens going with a 22-yard fumble return for a touchdown and the lead was 14-0 in the first quarter. The Redskins hung in the game, but at 17-10 in the fourth quarter, Flacco sealed it with a 28-yard scoring strike to Mason.
The stage was set for the Steelers to come to town in a game most of the country would see in the late afternoon television window. It was a defensive war befitting these two franchises. Baltimore clung to a 9-6 lead late in a game where no one could find the end zone. But Pittsburgh finally did, with a short touchdown pass with 0:43 left that won it.
Baltimore’s chances of winning the AFC North went by the boards with that loss, but they still controlled their fate for a wild-card spot. Although even that was a tough race. It was a strange year in the AFC, where the ultimate champion out of the West, the San Diego Chargers, only went 8-8. That meant there were more strong wild-card contenders and even with just five losses, the Ravens had no slack.
They also had a tough Saturday night game in Dallas. The Cowboys needed the win in their own playoff push, it was also the final game in the history of legendary Texas Stadium and Baltimore was a 5 ½ point underdog. But the Ravens pounded Dallas on the ground, 265-92, with nearly half of that coming on two big fourth-quarter runs. McGahee rumbled 77 yards for a touchdown and McClain sealed the 33-24 win with an 82-yard scoring romp of his own.
The season finale was against Jacksonville in the late afternoon. By the time the game started, it was apparent Baltimore would need to win to make the postseason. No problem. The Jaguars weren’t very good and Flacco was excellent. The rookie went 17/23 for 297 yards and no mistakes in the biggest start of his life. The easy 27-7 win sent Baltimore into the playoffs as the 6-seed.
It had been a visit to Miami that turned the regular season for the better, so perhaps it was appropriate that the playoff journey should also begin in South Beach. Respect for the Ravens was high, and even on the road they were installed as a 3 ½ point favorite in their early Sunday afternoon kickoff against the Dolphins.
The game was tied 3-3 late in the first half when Ed Reed did it again. He intercepted Chad Pennington and went 64 yards for a touchdown. Baltimore got another field goal right before intermission. At 13-3, this game was as good as over. Reed had another interception, one of four picks the Baltimore defense collected on the day. The rush yardage advantage was 151-52. And the final score was 27-9.
A visit to top-seeded Tennessee came the following Saturday, in the late afternoon time slot. The teams traded touchdowns in the first quarter and the defenses settled in. The Titans got the better of it in the general flow of play, but it was the Ravens—rookie quarterback and all—that took better care of the football. The 3-0 turnover edge was the difference. After swapping field goals early in the fourth quarter, Baltimore got another Matt Stover field goal, this one with 0:43 left to get the 13-10 win.
One step was left to reach the Super Bowl and it was the Steelers again standing in the way. The Ravens would get a third crack at their nemesis in an evening kickoff on Championship Sunday. It didn’t start well– Baltimore fell behind 13-0 thanks to a 65-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes. But they chipped away and cut the lead to 16-14.
When the Ravens got the ball back in the final five minutes, the nervousness in Heinz Field was evident. But Flacco had struggled most of the game—13/30 for 141 yards. And he threw the last of his three interceptions on this drive. It went into the hands of Troy Polamulu, who took it 40 yards to the end zone. The game ended at 23-14 and the Baltimore run was over.
It was a tough loss and it wasn’t the last time the Ravens would have to take a bitter pill in January. They made the playoffs each of the next three years. A loss at Indianapolis in 2009 was expected. Another defeat in Pittsburgh in 2010 was aggravating. An AFC Championship Game loss in New England in 2011 was positively crushing. But in 2012, the work paid off. Baltimore returned to the playoffs and Flacco went on one of the great postseason runs of all-time in leading the way to a Super Bowl championship. The seeds of that triumph were planted in 2008.