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Ravens savor long-awaited return to Super Bowl

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Ravens savor long-awaited return to Super Bowl

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) When the Baltimore Ravens last went to the Super Bowl, Art Modell was the owner, Brian Billick served as head coach and Trent Dilfer was the starting quarterback.

Now, 12 years later, they're back with owner Steve Bisciotti, coach John Harbaugh, QB Joe Flacco and one significant link to both teams: Ray Lewis.

Drawing inspiration from Lewis, their long-time middle linebacker, the Ravens bullied their way past New England 28-13 Sunday night to win the AFC championship and set up a matchup with the San Francisco 49ers. The victory ended a lengthy dry spell for a franchise with one Super Bowl appearance in its 17 years of existence.

Lewis was voted Super Bowl MVP after the Ravens beat the New York Giants 34-7 on Jan. 28, 2001. He announced earlier this month that he would step into retirement after Baltimore completes its current playoff run, and his teammates were determined to make sure that didn't happen before the Super Bowl.

``Ray is a guy who's been here since the beginning of this franchise,'' strong safety Bernard Pollard said Monday. ``He's a guy who is The Raven. We respect him when he speaks. Everybody stops and everybody hears him. He's kept this team together, he's kept this organization together in so many ways.''

Lewis knows what it takes to win. He knows about playing in the Super Bowl. Most of all, he knows how to get his teammates ready to play with unyielding intensity.

``Everyone knows what kind of player he is and what he's meant to this team and this organization,'' center Matt Birk said. ``There's probably not another leader like him. There's no one like him, somebody that means as much as he does to this team. Just everything he's been through, being here since Day 1, and the way he plays and the emotion and the passion that he plays with. I've been his teammate for four years, and that's how it's always been.''

Lewis got to the Super Bowl in his fifth season, then had to wait until his 17th to get back. In between, Modell sold majority ownership of the team to Bisciotti in 2004 and Harbaugh replaced Billick, who was fired after the 2007 season.

Harbaugh on Monday paid homage to Modell, who died in September, and voiced praise for the current owner.

``Art Modell is the foundation, the bulwark of this organization,'' Harbaugh said. ``He and Steve come from the same place, kind of how they see things.''

Dilfer, meanwhile, was released within months of his solid performance in the Super Bowl. He was replaced by Elvis Grbac, who played one season before retiring. The Ravens then went through a half-dozen starting quarterbacks, including Anthony Wright, Chris Redman, Kyle Boller and Steve McNair, before drafting Flacco in the first round of the 2008 draft.

Flacco took over as a rookie in the season opener and has started every game since.

One day after throwing three touchdown passes and outplaying New England quarterback Tom Brady, Flacco couldn't fully comprehend the enormity of going to the Super Bowl.

``I think we're still on a little bit of a high from the game,'' Flacco said. ``I don't know if anybody quite believes it yet, but it's pretty real.''

Blanking New England 21-0 in the second half? Beating Brady and the second-seed Patriots after knocking off the top-seeded Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning? It was almost as if the Ravens needed to pinch themselves.

``I'm just kind of numb to the whole thing,'' Birk said. ``Slowly, it's coming though. Hopefully, I guess you realize the moment and appreciate it, but then obviously get to work.''

This year's team went 10-6 in the regular season. Not bad, but Baltimore had a better record in 2006 (13-3), 2008 (11-5) and 2010 (12-4) and 2011 (12-4). The Ravens reached the AFC title game in 2008 and 2011 before finally getting it right on Sunday night.

They did it after overcoming the death of Modell, a three-game losing streak and the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Jim Caldwell, who took over for Cameron on Dec. 9, will return in the same position next season, Harbaugh announced Monday.

``I think our guys have done just a tremendous job all year of battling through adversity and overcoming the tough things that really make you into a close football team,'' Harbaugh said. ``That's what (Sunday night) was. It was a team victory. It wasn't one guy, it wasn't about a group of guys, it wasn't about one side of the ball. It was about a football team playing really good football in one of the biggest moments that football has to offer.''

Ever since he first arrived in Baltimore, Flacco imagined playing in the Super Bowl. And now, he's on his way.

``I think every year when you get ready to go, you visualize yourself playing football at this time of year,'' Flacco said. ``It's a tough deal to get to, but we've made it this far and we just got to make the most of it.''

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Joe Flacco, Lamar Jackson made Ravens quarterback change as low-drama as a move like that could be

Joe Flacco, Lamar Jackson made Ravens quarterback change as low-drama as a move like that could be

Lamar Jackson has every reason to have a big ego.

In the past two years he's won a Heisman Trophy, was a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and just beat out a Super Bowl MVP in the middle of the season for the starting quarterback job.

Who wouldn't have a bit of extra confidence after all of that? 

On Wednesday, the 21-year-old took to the podium at the Under Armour Performance Center to answer questions as the Ravens' newest leader in 11 seasons. He was the exact opposite of cocky. 

 “It’s ‘our’ team – all of us together," Jackson said on if he's able to call the Ravens his team now. "It’s our team. I don’t go out there and block. I don’t go out there and catch the ball. I don’t make tackles. I just do my part. It’s all of our team.”

The response should be of no surprise. Since arriving in Baltimore and slowly earning his way to the starting job, Jackson has been appreciative as has let his performance on the field do all the talking. 

“I pretty much didn’t really have a reaction to when [coach Harbaugh] was telling me. All it made me do was … I know I have to focus on everything a lot more – just bettering myself and trying to join with everybody around me even more. That’s about it.”

Since filling in for an injured Joe Flacco, Jackson is 52 of 89 for 600 passing yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions in addition to 67 rushing attempts for 336 yards and two touchdowns. He's also led the Ravens to a 3-1 record in those starts and back into playoff contention. 

The decision to switch starters mid-season could have led to an uncomfortable locker room. Each player who spoke on the matter gave off the vibe that it was no big deal.

And when Flacco spoke to the media on Wednesday for the first time in five weeks, the 33-year-old faced what every starting quarterback fears with nothing but kind words about Jackson. 

“I thought he’s done a great job," Flacco said on how Jackson is handling himself. "I’m really happy for what he’s been able to go out there and do. We’re winning football games. He and this team have put themselves, and ourselves, in position to go out there and do some big things for the rest of the year, and that’s definitely exciting.”

“Joe’s been handling it great," wide receiver John Brown added. "He’s been in Lamar’s corner. I’ve seen him the whole time. Every time he comes off the sideline, Joe is talking to him, telling him what he sees, trying to help him out. He’s been a great teammate.”

Jackson refraining from calling the Ravens "my team" is a rarity in a league where players are constantly trying to prove their authority, and even more so  for those with a title that only 32 guys hold. 

Possibly the class Flacco has had for 11 seasons as the leader of the Ravens has projected itself onto the rookie now in control. 

"Joe [Flacco] is still part of the team," Jackson said. "It’s his team still – just like it’s mine. It’s all of our team. We’re brothers. We’re here together, each and every day. We’ve been here since camp putting our life on the line. It’s still his team, man – nothing [has] changed.”

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Joe Flacco disappointed about losing starting job, but decision wasn't a surprise

Joe Flacco disappointed about losing starting job, but decision wasn't a surprise

It's been a lingering question around the Under Armour Performance Center over the last five weeks as rookie Lamar Jackson has filled in for an injured Joe Flacco.

At some point this season we knew that Flacco would be healthy enough to get back to football.

We also knew at some point this season the Ravens would have to make the tough decision on who their starting quarterback would be in the aftermath of Jackson leading the team to three straight wins.

That question was finally answered Wednesday when head coach John Harbaugh announced Jackson would be starting Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Flacco would be the backup for the first time in his 11 NFL seasons.

"Obviously disappointed that I can't be apart of this team in the same capacity that I have been for a long time," Flacco said Wednesday on learning the news.

"It's out of my hands. I got hurt. They drafted Lamar in the first round. At some point something was going to happen between the two of us. Who knows what that was going to be. This is just what it is at this point. I've obviously had five weeks to think about it and prepare myself for this situation and the possibility of it. I'm disappointed that, like I said, I can't be in that locker room in the same capacity that I've always been. But this is my situation right now and I'm going to do my best to handle it the right way."

The news, however, shouldn't come as a surprise to many.

In his first four games as the starter, Jackson is 52 of 89 for 600 passing yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions in addition to 67 rushing attempts for 336 yards and two touchdowns. His 30 rushing first downs ranks second among NFL QBs behind Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (33), and his 475 rushing yards in 2018 ranks second behind Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen (490).

Prior to suffering the hip injury in their Week 9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Flacco was 232 of 379 for 2,465 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. The Ravens had lost their last two games under him and it looked like another playoff-less season could be on the horizon for the fourth year in a row.  

When the weeks continued to pass without Flacco and the Ravens record continued to improve with Jackson, the writing to many was already on the wall. 

"It's part of the game," Flacco said on losing the starting job after his injury. "I've talked about it plenty of times. Every time you take the field, there's obviously the risk of something like that happening and it just is what it is."

"I can't say I was surprised. The bigger thing is just even though I'm disappointed, like I said about I guess my different role and all that, is just trying to stay excited about what my role is and the possibilities that they bring."

The leader of this team for 11 years, Flacco had missed just six games and started in his last 41 appearances before Week 10. While Flacco is admittedly not a sentimental guy and many have criticized him for his lack of emotion over the years, standing on the sideline the last four weeks has not been easy.

"It was really tough for me," Flacco said. "It wasn't even about the possibilities of something like this happening, you know, as a starting quarterback — which I've been for a long time for this team— you play through things throughout a course of a 10-year career. I definitely wanted to get out there and be there for my guys that next week, and it's definitely one of the hardest things I've done in my career is standing on the sidelines, being inactive and not being apart of it the way you want to." 

There was no denying the resurgence the Ravens experienced under Jackson. His 336 rushing yards in his first four starts is the most by a quarterback in the Super Bowl Era and his running back-like speed continues to be tough for defenses to stop.

What Jackson offers in speed Flacco can compliment in the passing game. Ever since the first-round pick rushed for 119 yards in his first start against the Cincinnati Bengals, the narrative has been that Jackson will never be able to sustain that in the NFL. Now with two quarterbacks to use at their discretion, the Ravens' last three games could get very interesting even though Harbaugh would not divulge how much the team would utilize the Super Bowl MVP in Sunday's game. 

"Anything can happen in this league very quickly and were right in the middle of a really good playoff run and we have a lot of important games ahead of us," Flacco said. "I'd firstly be doing my team a big disservice by not preparing the same way I always do, and after that I would be doing myself a big disservice, too, because you never know what's going to happen and when you're going to have to be called on."

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