OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- 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."