NEW ORLEANS -- No one can doubt the Baltimore Ravens anymore.
The Ravens claimed their place in NFL history with one of the most magical and improbable runs in recent memory. Their 34-31 triumph over the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl was the crowning glory in a season in which nothing came easy.
A team that appeared to be unraveling one month ago is now sitting on top of the football world because it refused to crumble. Some teams would flinch when a 22-point lead in the second half dwindled to two. But not every team has been on a journey quite like the Ravens'.
There have been gutsy calls. It happened with three weeks left in the regular season, when Ravens coach John Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. It happened Sunday night when Joe Flacco called an audible and decided to pass on third-and-1, which led to a critical field goal late in the fourth quarter.
There have been emotional rallying points from the death of former owner Art Modell to the retirement announcement of linebacker Ray Lewis. And on Lewis' final drive of his 17-year career, the Ravens stopped the 49ers on four plays inside the Baltimore 10-yard line.
And there have been miracles. The Ravens repeatedly found ways to win whether it was Ray Rice converting a fourth-and-29 in San Diego or Jacoby Jones catching a 70-yard touchdown to tie the AFC divisional playoff game in Denver. It was Jones once again coming up big in the Super Bowl when he got behind the defense for a 56-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter and opened the third quarter with a 108-yard kickoff return.
There have certainly been more talented Super Bowl champions. The challenge is finding one that has been as resilient as the Ravens'.
"How could it be any other way?" Harbaugh asked. "It's never pretty. It's never perfect. It's just us."
It's the imperfection that makes the Ravens so special. They never make it easy. This is the team that lost four of its last five games heading into the playoffs. Did anybody really believe the Ravens were going to hoist the Lombardi Trophy back in December?
This is the team that was down by seven points with 31 seconds left in Denver three weeks ago. Did anybody really believe the Ravens were going to pull that victory out?
This is also the team that gave up 17 straight points following a 34-minute delay Sunday night when half of the lights in the Superdome went out. How many thought the Ravens were going to collapse? Not the Ravens. Some may have lost faith in the Ravens along the way, but the Ravens never lost faith in themselves.
"It is really what makes and forms a Super Bowl champion team," Flacco said. "We've been put through those situations. So when they come up the moment doesn't get too big. We are comfortable. We've been there before. We've succeeded before. We are not worried about the outcome."
The defining moments of the season have been how the Ravens have answered the skeptics and continued to answer them on the game's biggest stage. Flacco came of age in the postseason and made one of the biggest plays of the game by putting the pressure on himself.
After the 49ers had closed to 31-29 in the fourth quarter, Flacco went to the line of scrimmage with three options on third-and-1. He chose to throw the fade to Anquan Boldin, which resulted in a 15-yard completion. That led to Justin Tucker's 38-yard field goal, which proved to be the difference in the game.
"He throws it right on the money, and Anquan goes up and makes the play," Harbaugh said. "To me, it shows you [Flacco] has guts. He has the guts of a burglar."
The defense, which was Baltimore's first to rank outside the top 10 in more than a decade, proved to be just as clutch as him. This was a defense that was without its best defensive lineman, Haloti Ngata, who was sidelined late in the game with a knee injury. The Ravens also have two star players (Lewis and linebacker Terrell Suggs) who are playing with one healthy arm each.
Still, this defense held tough in the red zone, as it has done all season. Cornerback Jimmy Smith, a disappointing first-round pick, broke up a third-and-goal pass from Colin Kaepernick and then got away with physical coverage on Michael Crabtree to force an incompletion on fourth-and-goal. While Smith made the plays, the attention fell on Lewis, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who is walking away from the game on top.
"I was sitting there thinking there's no way we stop them here," Flacco said. "But we did and that's what our defense is all about. I don't think there's any better ending to a career than that: a goal-line stand by one of the greatest linebackers and one of the greatest players to ever play the game. That's pretty special."
As the confetti fell on the Ravens at the Superdome, it was time to celebrate Lewis' last ride and Flacco's first step toward establishing his own legacy. It also marked the coronation of a team that won on will. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady couldn't stop them. Not even an unprecedented blackout in the Super Bowl could stop them.
This was more than a team of destiny. This was a team bent on completing a mission. For three weeks, the Ravens were underdogs. And for three weeks, they proved their doubters wrong.
"That's the thing about our team. Everybody outside the locker room is always counting us out," fullback Vonta Leach said. "We never broke. We knew what kind of team we had, and we knew our No. 1 goal coming into this season was to win the championship."