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Ravens faced obstacles in return to AFC title game

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Ravens faced obstacles in return to AFC title game

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) The Baltimore Ravens overcame an assortment of injuries and obstacles to return to the AFC championship game, one victory from reaching the Super Bowl.

Their usually stout defense was besieged by a season-long string of setbacks.

Thirteen players with starting experience were sidelined during the regular season, including linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, cornerback Lardarius Webb and tackle Haloti Ngata. Two dozen different defensive players received at least one start, but only two - safety Ed Reed and cornerback Cary Williams - started all 16 games.

The offense had its issues, too.

Frustrated with the unit's struggle during a December swoon, coach John Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and handed the reins to quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell.

Baltimore secured its second straight AFC North crown despite losing four of its last five regular-season games. Unlike last year, however, there was no first-round bye. Yet the Ravens defeated the Indianapolis Colts in the playoff opener before eliminating the top-seeded Denver Broncos last weekend to earn another shot at New England in the AFC title game Sunday night.

``I don't think a lot of people expected us to be here,'' Ngata said. ``For us to overcome a lot of things, everything that has happened with our team, I think we all just understand that we're a family here, and we can lean on each other and depend on each other.''

Not long after their season-ending 23-20 loss to New England last January, the Ravens began to realize this team would be radically different. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano accepted the job as head coach at Indianapolis, and three key starters left as free agents: linebacker Jarret Johnson, guard Ben Grubbs and defensive end Cory Redding.

Soon after that, the troubling offseason continued with another devastating blow: Suggs, the 2012 AP Defensive Player of the Year, tore his right Achilles tendon in early May.

In spite of it all, the Ravens won five of their first six games. But in a 31-29 victory over Dallas on Oct. 14, Lewis tore his right triceps and Webb ripped the ACL in his left knee and was placed on injured reserve.

Suggs made his season debut the following week, but the five-time Pro Bowl star missed two games in December with a torn right biceps and is still seeking to regain the form he displayed last year. Guard Marshal Yanda also sat out two games with a sprained ankle and safety Bernard Pollard was sidelined for three straight weeks with a chest injury.

And still, the Ravens pressed on.

``I think that we are battled-tested,'' Yanda said. ``We went through a lot of injuries. We went through line shuffles. We went through losses. We went through losing streaks, and every team goes through that during the year. It's all about just battling through it and trying to get hot and trying to play your best football at the end of the year. I think we're doing that. We are just going to have to do a lot of things to continue to do that come'' Sunday.

Judging by their performance in last Saturday's 38-35 double-overtime win over the Broncos, the Ravens appear to be hitting peak form. Lewis returned from a 10-game absence to lead the team in tackles against both the Colts and Broncos, and his teammates appear to have drawn strength from the ups and downs they've encountered over the past five months.

``A lot of teams go through a lot of things,'' Harbaugh said. ``There are challenges that get you to the point that you are at as a football team and make you who you are - even as a person. And, our guys have handled all those things extremely well. Individually and collectively, a lot of our guys have come out of it stronger and better men, and we're a stronger and better team.''

Tight end Dennis Pitta broke his right hand in practice in late July and received a concussion in November. But Pitta hasn't missed a game yet, and now he and the Ravens are eager to keep the season going with a win in New England.

``It's not easy being back in this position,'' Pitta said. ``We've had a lot of highs and lows this season. We had a three-game losing streak when nobody thought we would win another game. We've battled and we've been through a lot, and I think it's better prepared us for this point now. We're excited to be in this game and to be able to get a rematch with these guys.''

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Greg Roman rebuilding Ravens offense with Lamar Jackson in mind

Greg Roman rebuilding Ravens offense with Lamar Jackson in mind

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Greg Roman is off to a running start in his new role as offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, working long hours to construct a unit that can fully utilize the talents of quarterback Lamar Jackson.

The Ravens closed the regular season with a 6-1 run behind Jackson, who keyed an effective ground game with frequent forays out of the pocket and downfield. Baltimore ended a three-year hiatus from the playoffs, winning the AFC North before losing to the Chargers.

The goal this offseason is to make an effective attack even better. Promoted last month from assistant coach/tight ends coach, Roman is rewriting a playbook that was originally devised for a pass-oriented offense led by Joe Flacco.

"We're trying, soup to nuts, from the ground up ... to hit the sweet spot with how we put this offense together," Roman said Tuesday.

The focal point is Jackson, the 32nd overall pick in the 2018 draft. After Flacco injured his right hip in November, Jackson took over and displayed the slick moves and elusiveness that earned him a Heisman Trophy at Louisville.

The rookie finished as the team's second-leading rusher with 719 yards. He spearheaded a ground game that finished second in the NFL with 152.6 yards per game -- including an league-high 1,607 yards rushing over the final seven games.

"You're going to see a lot of elements of that this year," Roman said.

The result, he hopes, is something on a much grander scale.

"We have run an offense here that has kind of morphed over the years, and we really want to start fresh, start new," Roman said. "Everything from our language, our formations, how we do everything. Rebuild the thing. That's one angle.

"The other angle is really, how do we want to move forward with Lamar Jackson? He's a unique player with a unique skill set, so let's build an offense that really accommodates that, as opposed to try to fit him into something that other people had once done."

Roman took over for Marty Mornhinweg in part because of his work as an offensive coordinator in San Francisco and Buffalo, where he helped construct effective attacks with running quarterbacks in Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor.

At the time of Roman's hiring, coach John Harbaugh said, "Increasing Greg's responsibilities will help us get where we're going on offense."

Constructing a new playbook is not an easy process.

"It's a real grind. We're really looking at this as a completely new beginning, as if we were a new staff," Roman said. "I've kind of compared it to putting your kid's furniture together from IKEA or something. If you make one wrong move, you've got to take the whole thing apart and start over again."

For the offense to work, the Ravens must fortify the offensive line, get a rugged receiver capable of blocking downfield and hope Gus Edwards can continue to develop after a rookie season in which he was activated from the practice squad in October before running for a team-high 718 yards.

Most of all, however, they need Jackson to be better. His running prowess and determination are fine, but he had only one 200-yard passing game and fumbled 12 times.

"Moving forward, consistent fundamentals are what's really going to take him to the next level," Roman said, "because he's got all the ability in the world."

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Joe Flacco passes physical, is set to become Broncos' latest addition to QB carousel

Joe Flacco passes physical, is set to become Broncos' latest addition to QB carousel

Joe Flacco's journey out West is making progress.

The 34-year-old was in Denver last week and passed his physical with the Broncos, according to sources of Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer, clearing a path for their trade with the Ravens to become official when the new league year begins March 13.

In a move that was expected as the team made it clear 2018 first-round pick Lamar Jackson is its future, the Ravens are reportedly sending Flacco to the Broncos for a fourth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Based off of one observant flyer at Denver International Airport, the former Super Bowl MVP flew commercial out of Denver in a very Flacco-like move.

'Joe Cool' will presumably be the Broncos' fourth starting quarterback in three seasons and the latest addition to their quarterback carousel.

The Broncos drafted Brock Osweiler 57th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, starting just seven games over four seasons and was eventually re-signed in 2017 where he only started four games. Then they drafted Trevor Siemian in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL Draft, starting 24 games during the 2016-17 season, before trading up in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft for Paxton Lynch, who earned four starts in two seasons. They traded for Mark Sanchez in 2016, but he never made it to the regular season.

And finally, the Broncos signed free agent Case Keenum in 2018 to a two-year, $36 million deal. Keenum started all 16 games this season, going 365-for-586 for 3,890 yards, 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. However, general manager John Elway is now making room for Flacco for at least the next year. 

Flacco, who the Ravens drafted with the 18th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, has no guaranteed money left with the Ravens and is working on a one-year, $18.5 million deal with two-team option years following that. It's not a bad deal for a team that can't commit to a starting QB. 

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