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The Narrative Of The 2012 NFL Season

John Harbaugh came to Baltimore in 2008 and immediately started contending. The Ravens had been in the playoffs each year since. They had reached the AFC Championship Game twice. There had been some devastating postseason defeats along the way. But in 2012, their vindication finally came. They not only won the Super Bowl, but put together one of the most redemptive postseasons runs in memory.

Defense had long been the key to Raven success. And they had Pro Bowl players in Haloti Ngata up front and Ed Reed at free safety. But this was also a unit that was getting older. The great Ray Lewis at middle linebacker, was playing his last season. Baltimore’s defense wasn’t bad, but at 12th in the league for points allowed, it wasn’t great either.

The offense was a little better, ranking 10th in points scored. Even though quarterback Joe Flacco had a pedestrian year, running back Ray Rice did just about everything. He ran for 1100 yards and caught 61 passes. Fullback Vonta Leach was the best in the game at his position. The Ravens had a terrific return man in Jacoby Jones, who was also a big-play threat in the passing game. Jones would prove vital at some of this season’s threshold moments.

Baltimore’s historic rival in Pittsburgh took a step back in 2012, but the Cincinnati Bengals were still a contender in the AFC North. The Bengals had a similar profile to the Ravens—they were above-average on both sides of the ball, overcoming Andy Dalton’s mediocre quarterback play. Cincinnati’s D was led by All-Pro tackle Geno Atkins, who recorded 12 ½ sacks. Mike Johnson was another top pass rusher. The offense got 1,000 yards rushing from BenJarvus Green-Ellis and a Pro Bowl year from big-play receiver A.J. Green.

The Ravens and Bengals played on the opening Monday Night game, and Baltimore delivered a 44-13 beatdown. Before September was out, the Ravens won a 31-30 thriller over the New England Patriots on a Sunday Night. Baltimore’s strong start gave them enough room to survive some bad stumbles down the stretch, when it looked like they were coming apart. Both AFC North rivals finished 10-6. Cincinnati would be the 6-seed in the playoffs. The Ravens’ late-season struggles had dropped them to the 4-spot in the AFC bracket.

John Harbaugh’s younger brother Jim had arrived on the NFL stage the prior year in San Francisco and immediately made the 49ers a contender. San Francisco, along with Baltimore, had lost a crushing conference championship game in 2011. But the 49ers, like the Ravens, were back for more this year.

The San Francisco defense was simply loaded. Three linebackers—Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith—were 1st-team All-Pro. Smith finished with 19 ½ sacks. Dashon Goldson was another All-Pro in the secondary. The 49er defense ranked second in the NFL. The offense had an All-Pro guard in Mike Iupati.

San Francisco was defined by a physical persona built on defense and running the football. Frank Gore rolled up over 1,200 yards on the ground. Alex Smith opened the season at quarterback and had the title of “game manager.” He managed them well. The 49ers went into Green Bay for the season opener and won 30-22. San Francisco won a tough Thursday night game over Seattle 13-6, and got a decisive 32-7 Monday Night win over contending Chicago.

But along the way, Smith was injured. Colin Kaepernick stepped into the lineup. And his dual-threat running ability gave the 49ers a whole new dimension. That was highlighted by an electric 41-34 in New England late in the year on a Sunday Night. The 49ers finished 11-4-1, won the NFC West and got a first-round bye as the 2-seed. And they were riding with Kaepernick in the playoffs.

Seattle had a rookie quarterback by the name of Russell Wilson and surprised most observers by how quickly they jumped into contention. Wilson’s development was aided by the power running of Marshawn Lynch, who ran for nearly 1,600 yards and was All-Pro. He ran behind a line that included another All-Pro in center Max Unger. The Seahawk defense, with ballhawking corner Richard Sherman, safety Earl Thomas, and defensive end Chris Clemons, was the stingiest in the league.

The Seahawks got on the map in September by blowing out Dallas. Then they won a wildly controversial Monday Night home game with Green Bay. The Seahawks clearly benefitted from horrid officiating from the replacement refs that were standing in for the striking regulars. The officiating crew in that Monday Night Seahawks-Packers game was bad enough that it forced the league to get a settlement in place.

In the meantime, Seattle had some momentum. They beat New England 24-23 in October. They knocked off playoff-bound Minnesota 30-20. And the Seahawks made their own December statement by hammering the 49ers 42-13 on a Sunday Night and briefly hanging in the NFC West race. At 11-5, Seattle ultimately settled for a wild-card and the 5-seed. But they were a team that was coming on as the playoffs arrived.

The 1-seeds in each conference came out of Denver and Atlanta. There were huge question marks starting the season in Denver. Peyton Manning, after multiple neck surgeries, and missing all of 2011, had moved on from Indianapolis and was attempting a comeback in the Rocky Mountains.

How did it go? Peyton merely threw for 4,600 yards and was 1st-team All-Pro. He was protected by another All-Pro, tackle Ryan Clady. And the targets included Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, who combined for 2,500 yards. The defense had a rising star in outside linebacker Von Miller and his 18 ½ sacks. Denver finished in the top four in the NFL both offensively and defensively. Down the stretch, they hammered Baltimore 34-17, en route to a 13-3 record and homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs.

The NFC South was in flux, with New Orleans’ head coach Sean Payton suspended over the revelations that Saints defenders had been putting “bounties” on opposing offensive players. The Falcons, already a playoff team, from 2011, stepped into the leadership vacuum. Matt Ryan threw for over 4,700 yards and made the Pro Bowl. He had great targets in Roddy White, Julio Jones, and All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzales. The defense had a quality pass rusher in Jon Abraham and a good free safety in Thomas DeCoud.

Atlanta matched up with Denver in a high-profile Monday Night game in September and won 27-21. They beat NFC East contenders in Washington and Dallas. And the Falcons rolled to a 13-3 record, ensuring that the road to the Super Bowl would come through Georgia.

Peyton’s old friends in Indianapolis were starting a new era with one of the most hyped draft picks of all-time—quarterback Andrew Luck. The first player chosen in the draft, Luck already had NFL observers scoping out his place in the Hall of Fame before he ever took a snap. His rookie year had its ups and downs. On the one hand, he threw for over 4,300 yards, regularly targeting the great veteran, Reggie Wayne. On the other hand, he threw 18 interceptions. But there was more good than bad—Indianapolis went 11-5, got into the playoffs as the 5-seed and earned a ticket to Baltimore for wild-card weekend.

The pace in the AFC South though, was being set down in Houston. The Texans had the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. J.J. Watt terrorized opposing quarterbacks to the tune of 20 ½ sacks. And Houston had plenty of offense. Matt Schaub enjoyed a Pro Bowl year directing an attack that included 1,400-yard rusher Arian Foster, 1,500-yard receiver Andre Johnson and Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels. The Texans knocked off the Broncos 31-26 in September. They hammered the Ravens 43-13 in October. They beat the Bears 13-6 in November. And in a big December divisional battle, Houston beat Indy 29-17. With a 12-4 record, the Texans were the 3-seed in the AFC.

No season in this era is complete without discussion of Tom Brady in New England and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. The great quarterbacks again launched their teams into the Super Bowl conversation. Brady threw 34 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. Stevan Ridley ran for over 1,200 yards, while Wes Welker was a 1,300-yard receiver. The Patriot offense was the league’s most prolific. The defense, anchored by All-Pro tackle Vince Wolfork, ranked ninth.

New England beat Denver 31-21 in October. The Patriot offense exploded in November with a 59-24 blowout of the Colts. They dropped a 42-14 beatdown on the Texans. The wild Sunday Night loss to San Francisco mentioned above dropped New England to 12-4, but they were still the AFC”s 2-seed and got a first-round bye.

Green Bay was part of a lively three-team race in the NFC North. Rodgers posted a TD/INT ratio of 39/8. The Packers had playmakers on defense that included Clay Matthews and his 13 sacks and defensive back Casey Hayward, who intercepted six passes.

After a slow start, Green Bay rounded into form a mid-October Sunday Night when they went to Houston and hammered the Texans 42-14. In December, Green Bay beat Minnesota 23-14. Two weeks later, they knocked off the Bears 21-13. It made the difference in the NFC North as the Packers finished 11-5 and clocked in as the 3-seed.

As for Chicago and Minnesota, they raced to the end of the season in a push for the last playoff spot as the 6-seed. The Bears got All-Pro years from Brandon Marshall at wide receiver and defensive back Charles Tillman.

But Adrian Peterson essentially told the Vikings “hop on my back and I’ll carry you.” The great running back put together a magnificent 2,000-yard season. Even with every opposing defense knowing Minnesota had no other option offensively, Peterson still averaged a stunning six yards a carry. He was a deserved winner of the MVP award. And in the final game of the season, with the playoffs on the line, A.P. helped Minnesota outgun Green Bay 37-34, edging out Chicago for a postseason spot.

The last playoff spot came down to a three-team fight for the NFC East. The New York Giants were the defending Super Bowl champs. The Dallas Cowboys were in the mix. That was expected. What wasn’t expected is that the Washington Redskins also jumped up.

Robert Griffin III (RG3) had an electric rookie season at quarterback in the nation’s capital. RG3 played mistake-free football, with a 20/5 TD-INT ratio. He made big plays, averaging over eight yards per attempt. And his running was a big difference-maker. RG3 ran for over 800 yards at nearly seven yards a pop. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. His play opened up the Redskin offense for Alfred Morris to pound out over 1,600 yards on the ground.

After a 3-6 start, Washington caught fire while New York faded. RG3 put on a dynamite show for the nation on Thanksgiving, leading a 38-31 win over Dallas. The Redskins beat the Ravens. Washington got to 9-6 and the division race came down to a Sunday Night showdown with Dallas. It was winner-take-all and win-or-go-home. The Redskins won 28-18 capping a magical ride.

Wild-Card Weekend opened up with three fairly pedestrian games, as home teams held serve. Houston beat Cincinnati 19-13, the second straight year the Texans had ousted the Bengals in this round. Minnesota and Green Bay rematched in Lambeau Field on Saturday night. Doing it two weeks in a row was too much for the Vikings, especially with backup quarterback Joe Webb forced into action. The Packers churned out an efficient 24-10 win. The following afternoon in Baltimore, the Ravens dismantled the Colts 24-9.

The drama took place later on Sunday, right up the road from Baltimore, in the nation’s capital. Washington exploded out of the gate on Seattle, taking a quick 14-0 lead. RG3 looked unstoppable. But on the second touchdown drive, he tweaked his knee. It was the recurrence of an injury that had caused him to miss a game down the stretch. This injury—and the way it was handled—would alter the course of history.

As the game wore on, RG3 was clearly unable to go. Head coach Mike Shanahan, even with a reliable backup in Kirk Cousins, chose to leave Griffin in the game. The Redskins bogged down. The Seahawks gradually took over. Finally, RG3’s knee literally collapsed in the pocket during the fourth quarter. Seattle won the game 24-14. Griffin’s career would never recover.

The Divisional Round started in Denver, where the Ravens and Broncos played an all-time classic. A great back-and-forth battle had Denver holding a 35-28 lead. There was less than a minute to play. Baltimore was on their own 30-yard line, but out of timeouts. Denver had this one.

Or did they? Jacoby Jones got behind the secondary, down the sidelines. Flacco hit him in perfect stride. A stunning 70-yard touchdown passed forced overtime. A long night ensued. The game went into a sixth quarter. Finally, Justin Tucker hit a 47-yard field goal for the Ravens to complete a big 38-35 upset.

Green Bay went to San Francisco that night and got off to a fast start. Kaepernick, making his first playoff start, threw a Pick-6, and the 49ers trailed 14-7. Then, Kaepernick took over. He threw for 263 yards. He ran for an astonishing 181 yards. San Francisco pulled away and won 45-31.

On early Sunday afternoon, Atlanta spent three quarters having their way with Seattle and built up a 27-7 lead. In the blink of an eye, the Seahawks rallied. Wilson led three straight touchdown drives and took a 28-27 lead. But there was enough time for Matt Ryan to answer, leading the Falcons in position for a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds. Atlanta survived 30-28.

After three straight divisional games with at least some degree of drama, the finale on late Sunday afternoon was a little more predictable. New England comfortably took apart Houston, 41-28.

The Brothers Harbaugh both took their shows on the road for Championship Sunday. Both Jim and John’s teams would start slowly, and then gain steam in the second half.

For the second straight week, Atlanta came out hot on their home field. The Falcons led the 49ers 17-0 and looked on their way to the Super Bowl. But San Francisco came back and by the fourth quarter, had taken a 28-24 lead. They held off a last-ditch Atlanta drive in the red-zone and preserved the win.

Baltimore was a decided underdog in Foxboro in the early evening and trailed 13-7 at the half. But the Ravens shocked the Patriots, and the entire country, by completely taking over. Flacco decisively outplayed Brady. And Baltimore decisively won, 28-13. A journey being called “Ray’s Last Ride” in honor of Lewis, was going to the Super Bowl.

The family storyline was understandably front and center, as two brother coached against each other. Jacoby Jones continued his heroics, catching a long touchdown pass and returning a kickoff for a touchdown. The Ravens shocked everyone again, taking a 28-6 lead in the third quarter.

Then the lights went out. Literally. There was a power outage in the New Orleans Superdome. When play resumed, Baltimore had lost their momentum. San Francisco stormed back. They cut the lead to 34-29 and drove inside the 10-yard line in the closing minute. It was 2nd-and-goal. Two passes fell incomplete. It all came down to fourth down.

Time for one last bit of drama. The decisive play call was a fade route to Crabtree. He was covered by Baltimore corner Jimmy Smith. There was heavy contact at the goal line. Was it legal or illegal? You can watch the video and decide. No flag was thrown. The ball fell incomplete. The Ravens took a voluntary safety and closed out a 34-31 win.

It was an epic finish to a stunning turnabout for the Ravens. After fading badly most of the second half, they had turned it around in the postseason and beaten Denver, New England, and San Francisco. After a mostly mediocre year, Joe Flacco had done a postseason impression of Joe Montana, outplaying Peyton and Brady in the process. And Ray Lewis was going out a winner. The Ravens had found their redemption.