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Ravens savor long-awaited return to Super Bowl

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Ravens savor long-awaited return to Super Bowl

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) When the Baltimore Ravens last went to the Super Bowl, Art Modell was the owner, Brian Billick served as head coach and Trent Dilfer was the starting quarterback.

Now, 12 years later, they're back with owner Steve Bisciotti, coach John Harbaugh, QB Joe Flacco and one significant link to both teams: Ray Lewis.

Drawing inspiration from Lewis, their long-time middle linebacker, the Ravens bullied their way past New England 28-13 Sunday night to win the AFC championship and set up a matchup with the San Francisco 49ers. The victory ended a lengthy dry spell for a franchise with one Super Bowl appearance in its 17 years of existence.

Lewis was voted Super Bowl MVP after the Ravens beat the New York Giants 34-7 on Jan. 28, 2001. He announced earlier this month that he would step into retirement after Baltimore completes its current playoff run, and his teammates were determined to make sure that didn't happen before the Super Bowl.

``Ray is a guy who's been here since the beginning of this franchise,'' strong safety Bernard Pollard said Monday. ``He's a guy who is The Raven. We respect him when he speaks. Everybody stops and everybody hears him. He's kept this team together, he's kept this organization together in so many ways.''

Lewis knows what it takes to win. He knows about playing in the Super Bowl. Most of all, he knows how to get his teammates ready to play with unyielding intensity.

``Everyone knows what kind of player he is and what he's meant to this team and this organization,'' center Matt Birk said. ``There's probably not another leader like him. There's no one like him, somebody that means as much as he does to this team. Just everything he's been through, being here since Day 1, and the way he plays and the emotion and the passion that he plays with. I've been his teammate for four years, and that's how it's always been.''

Lewis got to the Super Bowl in his fifth season, then had to wait until his 17th to get back. In between, Modell sold majority ownership of the team to Bisciotti in 2004 and Harbaugh replaced Billick, who was fired after the 2007 season.

Harbaugh on Monday paid homage to Modell, who died in September, and voiced praise for the current owner.

``Art Modell is the foundation, the bulwark of this organization,'' Harbaugh said. ``He and Steve come from the same place, kind of how they see things.''

Dilfer, meanwhile, was released within months of his solid performance in the Super Bowl. He was replaced by Elvis Grbac, who played one season before retiring. The Ravens then went through a half-dozen starting quarterbacks, including Anthony Wright, Chris Redman, Kyle Boller and Steve McNair, before drafting Flacco in the first round of the 2008 draft.

Flacco took over as a rookie in the season opener and has started every game since.

One day after throwing three touchdown passes and outplaying New England quarterback Tom Brady, Flacco couldn't fully comprehend the enormity of going to the Super Bowl.

``I think we're still on a little bit of a high from the game,'' Flacco said. ``I don't know if anybody quite believes it yet, but it's pretty real.''

Blanking New England 21-0 in the second half? Beating Brady and the second-seed Patriots after knocking off the top-seeded Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning? It was almost as if the Ravens needed to pinch themselves.

``I'm just kind of numb to the whole thing,'' Birk said. ``Slowly, it's coming though. Hopefully, I guess you realize the moment and appreciate it, but then obviously get to work.''

This year's team went 10-6 in the regular season. Not bad, but Baltimore had a better record in 2006 (13-3), 2008 (11-5) and 2010 (12-4) and 2011 (12-4). The Ravens reached the AFC title game in 2008 and 2011 before finally getting it right on Sunday night.

They did it after overcoming the death of Modell, a three-game losing streak and the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Jim Caldwell, who took over for Cameron on Dec. 9, will return in the same position next season, Harbaugh announced Monday.

``I think our guys have done just a tremendous job all year of battling through adversity and overcoming the tough things that really make you into a close football team,'' Harbaugh said. ``That's what (Sunday night) was. It was a team victory. It wasn't one guy, it wasn't about a group of guys, it wasn't about one side of the ball. It was about a football team playing really good football in one of the biggest moments that football has to offer.''

Ever since he first arrived in Baltimore, Flacco imagined playing in the Super Bowl. And now, he's on his way.

``I think every year when you get ready to go, you visualize yourself playing football at this time of year,'' Flacco said. ``It's a tough deal to get to, but we've made it this far and we just got to make the most of it.''

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Five factors to predict Dolphins at Ravens this Sunday

Five factors to predict Dolphins at Ravens this Sunday

What: Dolphins (7-4) at Ravens (6-5)

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

Where: M&T Bank Stadium

Ravens injuries:

OUT – TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh), G Alex Lewis (ankle), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh).

DOUBTFUL – RB Buck Allen (non-football issue).

QUESTIONABLE – WR Kamar Aiken (thigh), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle).

Dolphins injuries:

OUT – C Maurkice Pouncey (hip).

DOUBTFUL – CB Xavien Howard (knee).

QUESTIONABLE – OT Branden Albert (wrist), LB Kiko Alonso (hamstring), G Jermon Bushrod (calf), RB Kenyen Drake (knee); LB Jelani Jenkins (knee/hand); DT Earl Mitchell (back); WR DeVante Parker (back); G/T Laremy Tunsil (shoulder).

Five questions you should ask:

1. Are the Dolphins ready to win a big road game in December?

Despite their six-game winning streak, the Dolphins are just 2-3 away from home. Now you’re asking them to win at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Dolphins are 0-2 all-time? We’ll see. The Dolphins will gain credibility as an AFC playoff threat if they win this game.

2. Can the Ravens put together a complete offensive performance?

Quarterback Joe Flacco wasn’t satisfied with the Ravens’ 19-14 win over the Bengals in Week 12. Actually, he hasn’t been satisfied with the offense all season.

“When you have a team 16-3, you would like to choke them out and get it over with,” Flacco said.

He knows the Ravens have to play better offensively to go on a December run. And part of that improvement starts with Flacco.

3. Can the Ravens’ offensive line handle Cameron Wake (8½ sacks) and Ndamukong Suh (five sacks)?

The Dolphins’ defensive line has the ability to make Flacco’s day miserable. The Ravens’ offensive line will need one of its better performances.

4. Which team’s running game will be most effective?

This could be the key to victory, because both teams want to run and utilize play-action passing. Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (847 yards, 5.3 yards per carry) is a load, but the Ravens have the NFL’s top-ranked run defense. Ravens rookie running back Kenneth Dixon is coming off his best game (13 carries, 49 yards), and looks ready to share more carries with Terrance West (600 yards).

5. Can the Ravens get enough pressure on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill?

Tannehill has nine touchdown passes and just one interception during the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak. The Dolphins like to get Tannehill outside the pocket and take advantage of his ability to throw accurately on the move. Tannehill’s game has grown under new head coach Adam Gase. If the Ravens don’t throw Tannehill off his rhythm, he will make plays.

Prediction: Expect a typical close Ravens game, but I see them squeezing out a critical victory, on the strength of Justin Tucker’s leg.

Ravens 20, Dolphins 17 

MORE RAVENS: How Ravens could still win AFC North

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CB Jimmy Smith expected to play, listed as questionable for Sunday

CB Jimmy Smith expected to play, listed as questionable for Sunday

OWINGS MILLS — Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins, but it appears Smith will play after missing the past two games with a back problem. Smith practiced all week, and head coach John Harbaugh sounded optimistic following Friday’s practice.

“He looks good,” Harbaugh said. “We weren’t sure early in the week if he was going to be able to go, and he just responded well and he looks good. It will mean a lot. It will help our defense. We’ll be really, pretty much, full strength out there.”

Three Ravens were declared out for Sunday’s game — tight end Crockett Gillmore (thigh), left guard Alex Lewis (ankle) and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh).

Meanwhile, backup running back Buck Allen was doubtful due to a non-football issue.

“Buck had a personal issue come up,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the most I want to say about it right now. It’s just something that’s a personal issue right now that he’s dealing with. He may not be able to play in the game. We’re just going to have to see about that, where he’s at with it.”

MORE RAVENS: How Baltimore could still win AFC North