DETROIT – The sign features white letters with purple trim on a black background. It's stuck, courtesy of gray duct tape, to a slab of cardboard that is crudely cut from an old flattened box.
It isn't much. It isn't fancy. It doesn't seem like something befitting the defending Super Bowl champions.
Then again, that's part of the message, part of the Baltimore Ravens culture that when you find yourself wallowing at 4-6 in the midst of a bust of a season, it gets you to dig deep and rally for four consecutive victories. That includes this one on Monday, where six field goals, the last a final minute 61-yard Justin Tucker bomb, was enough to escape Detroit, 18-16.
"Play Like A Raven" the sign reads. It gets brought along and hung above the door of the Baltimore locker room no matter where the Ravens play. On the way out to the field, the players reach up and slap it. It says that no matter how much history and leadership walks out the door in the offseason – Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin – what remains still knows what this program is all about.
"We just grind," running back Ray Rice said. "We don't care who gets it done. We just put ourselves in position to win games."
You could say the difference here in Ford Field was miniscule – a booming blast of a desperation field goal just scrapping inside and over the uprights. Or you could say it is massive – the clash of cultures and confidence from two franchises that reside in different stratospheres of the league. Almost all NFL games are close. Almost all come down to a play or three. Yet some teams tend to win more than their share. And some lose them.
In late November, Baltimore was all but done. Now it is 8-6, finding a way to win, often in the final plays, week after week. The Ravens are in control of a wild-card spot and still eye a chance at the AFC North crown.
In late November, Detroit was 6-3 and atop a division where the starting quarterbacks for the other two contenders (Green Bay and Chicago) were lost to injury. The Lions have since lost four of five, blowing a fourth-quarter lead each time, and at 7-7 need help to salvage anything. The team is too talented for this to be its fate.
"I think some of the stuff that happened to us was just kind of self-inflicted," said quarterback Matthew Stafford, who chucked three interceptions.
Self-inflicted is what the Lions do best. Even in the annals of a franchise that's won just a single playoff game since 1957, this season is headed for a memorable collapse. There have been plenty of bad Detroit teams through the years.
This one isn't bad. It just keeps playing that way.
The bull's-eye is now squarely on coach Jim Schwartz, who should probably be replaced even if Detroit somehow reaches the playoffs but losses its first game. He did an admirable job getting a team that went 0-16 to the point where .500 isn't good enough. But five years in however, and the product is maddening to watch.
This was a thorough, nationally televised display of self-inflicted mistakes – mostly on offense. Bad play-calling, bad execution, bad decision-making, bad mistakes – even Calvin Johnson dropped two easy passes.
"This was a tough loss for us," Schwartz said.
Many of the fans that came out on a cold, snowy night left calling (again) for his job. Schwartz remained defiant, if not delusional. It's probably the only way to survive.
"Our emotions aren't important right now," he said. "We have two games to play, we're one down in our division … This was a setback, no question, because we did control our destiny until tonight. ... We just need to move on from it and go get two wins."
And then dream of even more good fortune because if both Green Bay and Chicago win on Sunday, Detroit will be eliminated by Christmas and Schwartz likely won't make it to New Year's.
Across the way the Ravens are all about looking toward 2014, toward another trip to the playoffs, toward more chances to gut out victories. Their roster is only partially recognizable from that Super Bowl just 10 months ago, but the team-first, find-a-way attitude is still there.
"It starts with your head guy," Rice said of coach John Harbuagh. "I think teams are a reflection of their head coach and I'm just glad ours pushes us the way he does. … It's not even about what he preaches, it's about how he goes about the day. We take advantage of every minute, every bit of time we have together.
"One thing he does preach is 'team first,' so it doesn't matter what happens," Rice continued. "It probably doesn't look pretty but it doesn't matter. What matters now is that we are winning football games. Pro Bowls. Last year's Super Bowl. You can throw all of that aside. We have to write this chapter."
Rice finished with just 56 yards. He is banged up and has been most of the season. He says he doesn't even want to know his stats anymore.
Yet there was the play just before Tucker's kick when he turned nothing (or even a negative play) into 2 yards, 2 likely crucial yards. Or the play earlier in the half, when Ndamukong Suh, the Lions' 6-foot-4, 307-pound brute, got into the backfield, headed for quarterback Joe Flacco, only to get blocked by the 5-foot-8 Rice.
You jacked him up, Rice was told.
"I don't know about jacking him up, but I got the job done," Rice laughed. "He didn't run me over … man, my eyes lit up [when I saw him coming]."
These are the little things that win close games, the little plays that get lost in the highlights and box scores. They are the moments that separate victory from defeat, champions from calls for the coach's head and, perhaps, Baltimore as a franchise from Detroit as a franchise.
"Play Like A Raven" the sign read, hanging above the door of the victorious locker room.
Everyone here knew exactly what it meant. And it sort of said it all.
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