Toughest venues: Scoreboard, baby
Ravens get statistically unrivaled home advantage at No. 1 M&T Bank Stadium
1. M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have the league's biggest differential between home and road winning percentage over the past decade: .771/.415/.356 difference. That home success is second only to the Patriots in that span. Baltimore also has the greatest point differential, home (plus-756) versus away (minus-77), in that time -- a remarkable swing of 833 points.
When the Browns left Cleveland following the 1995 season, they took up residence at Baltimore's storied Memorial Stadium. Even in their two fledgling seasons there, a distinct (but schizophrenic) personality began to emerge.
The Ravens were a dreadful 3-13 on the road, but in the comfort and safety of their home-field venue they were a respectable 7-8-1.
In 1998, they moved into Ravens Stadium at Camden Yards. And despite a succession of stadium name changes -- four in a span of six years -- the Ravens thrived at home and continued to struggle on the road.
The numbers are, quite frankly, astonishing: In 14 seasons at the building now known as M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens are a giddy 84-31 (.730). The road record in that time is a less-than-stellar 50-64 (.439). No NFL team in recent years has had more dramatic Jekyll-and-Hyde mood swings.
NFL'S TOUGHEST VENUES
ESPN.com tapped more than two dozen NFL players, owners, general managers past and present, scouts, and pundits to determine the NFL's toughest venues:
• Intro: What makes a tough venue?
• Photo gallery: Dirty Half Dozen
• No. 1: Just look at the scoreboard
• No. 2: Pump up the volume
• No. 3: A legacy frozen in time
• No. 4: Weather, fans conspire
• No 5: Altitude adjustment
• No. 6: Tailgating capital of NFL
• ESPN Dallas: Easy in Arlington
• Herm Edwards lists his top five
• Chart: Home/road splits since 2002
• Chart: Home/road splits since 1992
• Chart: Home/road splits since 1982
• SportsNation: Rank 'em yourself
• Inside Slant: Sando, Seifert discuss
Based on those numbers, the Ravens depend on their home field more than any other team in the league. Baltimore is not typically recognized as one of the NFL's toughest venues, but tellingly, ESPN Insiders Chris Mortensen and John Clayton both had M&T among their top five.
"It's nice to get recognized," said Ravens center Matt Birk, a six-time Pro Bowl player.
Birk, in his fourth season in Baltimore after 11 seasons in Minnesota, said the team's formula for success is fairly simple.
"The Ravens are known for their great defense," Birk said. "When you couple that with a loud home stadium, that makes it tough on visiting offenses -- especially in today's game with all the audibilizing that goes on."
The Ravens' offense, supported by that terrific defense, is pretty solid at home. But -- like the visiting units that suffer in Baltimore -- it doesn't travel especially well.
The last two-plus seasons are a good illustration.
The Ravens were a perfect 8-0 at home a year ago during the regular season. A victory over the Houston Texans in the playoffs made them 9-0 before their season ended in the AFC Championship Game at the Patriots' Gillette Stadium. Overall, the Ravens have won 14 straight at home, the league's longest streak.
The only loss at home in the last two-plus seasons came to Pittsburgh, by three points, in December 2010. The Ravens' host record over that time -- a sensational 19-1 -- contrasts sharply with a middle-of-the-road visitors mark of 11-10.
In his fifth season in Baltimore, coach John Harbaugh is 30-5 (.857) at M&T Bank Stadium -- the best home record in the league over that time. Harbaugh calls his home-field advantage "the wall of purple" and says it's difficult to speak to someone only a foot away at home games.
Under Harbaugh at home, the Ravens have:
• Allowed an average of only 13.9 points per game, the best figure in the league; Pittsburgh is second at 14.7.
• Produced league highs of 111 interceptions and 209 sacks.
• Averaged a victory margin of 14.3 points.
Ask longtime Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi about tough places to play, and he offers up a Ravens-Patriots Monday night game from 2007. The Patriots were 11-0 going in -- on their way to a 16-0 regular season -- and hung on to win 27-24.
"It was five years ago, and I can remember everything -- it made that much of an impression," Bruschi said. "Sometimes when you play in certain venues you feel the audience. The electricity they have, the energy they're giving the team. You feel that in Baltimore.
"It's like the fans and the defense are in perfect sync together."
Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' senior vice president of public and community relations, will tell you this isn't an accident. The Ravens, he said, strive to make the in-stadium experience more compelling than watching from home.
"That's what we're competing against," Byrne explained. "We invite the fans to help. We're saying, 'You can help us win. You can be a factor.' Let's not guess what they want -- let's ask them.
"We spend a lot of time and effort on it. We're pretty good at it, I have to admit."
The Ravens have monthly offseason meetings -- attended by the team president and a number of vice presidents -- to discuss details. During the season, these sessions are held before every home game.
Last year, the Ravens, who have email addresses for 90 percent of their season-ticket holders, asked which song they would like to hear played after a touchdown. The answer, culled from selections by the Rolling Stones, Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica, was "Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes. Later, when the Ravens asked about a song to fire up the defense, the answer was the same. Now, that familiar riff from Jack White's guitar never fails to create a frenzy.
The introduction order is freshly calibrated each week. The game after wide receiver Torrey Smith scored two touchdowns against the Patriots following the death of his younger brother in a motorcycle accident, he was introduced first before the Ravens hosted Cleveland. The response approached the noise level usually generated by the more popular defense.
Oh, and those message-board prompts for fans to get louder, the rising thermometer graphics for decibels?
"Our fans are too sophisticated for that," Byrne said. "We think that's demeaning. They know when to get loud. I'll tell you how good our fans are: We practice to loud music -- the week leading up to home games.
"Ray Lewis will tell you he'd almost rather play away from home, because at least on the road he can talk to his teammates on the field."
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