Some of them hadn’t seen each other in nearly a decade, and hadn’t so much as spoken since those glorious days when they celebrated their spot on the NFL mountaintop. There was the confetti that rained down on them at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the after-party in New Orleans, the parade down the streets of Baltimore and the ring ceremony at team headquarters.
Then, for most of them, there was ultimately separation, either to a new team or another phase of their lives.
The members of the 2012 Baltimore Ravens eventually learned that time and distance didn’t weaken the bond that they’ll always share, or the link that was cemented when they beat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 on Feb. 3, 2013, to win Super Bowl XLVII.
“It’s the most special thing you can do in this sport, to win that game,” said quarterback Joe Flacco. “It definitely ties you together for life.”
In late October, the Ravens hosted a reunion for the 2012 team, a celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the organization’s second Super Bowl championship. Flacco, the ideal representative of a team that had flaws but was indomitable when it mattered most, couldn’t attend because he was in Denver with the New York Jets. Former Ravens Dennis Pitta and Marshal Yanda got Flacco on FaceTime at different points of the weekend, so he could say hello to ex-teammates and take in some of the festivities.
For two days, players got reacquainted and then reminisced. They spent time at the team facility. They were introduced to the M&T Bank Stadium crowd before the Ravens faced the Cleveland Browns. The stories flowed and the members of that team celebrated their achievement all over again.
“There were a million stories, things you had forgotten about or things you hadn’t thought about for 10 years,” Pitta said. “It was almost like we were right back in the locker room. What’s so neat about being able to sit down with a team that accomplished the ultimate goal is you get back together having not seen guys for years, and you pick up right where you left off.”
The 2012 Ravens persisted through injuries to top players, a tragedy impacting a beloved teammate and a late-season stretch that saw them lose four of their final five games and the offensive coordinator get fired. Yet, the Ravens shut down Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round and then beat the top-seeded Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning, thanks to a Mile High Miracle. A dominant second half subdued Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC title game. Finally, the Ravens bested Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers in a Super Bowl remembered for two head-coaching brothers and a stadium blackout.
Frozen jerseys and an answered prayer: Oral history of the 'Mile High Miracle' 10 years later
Ten years later, the memories are as vivid as ever. Several players relived the journey and the season’s key moments in interviews with The Athletic.
Many of the 2012 players insist that was not the best Ravens team they’ve been on. That distinction went to the 2011 team, which lost to the Patriots 23-20 in the AFC Championship Game when Lee Evans couldn’t hold on to the game-winning touchdown and Billy Cundiff couldn’t convert a game-tying 32-yard field goal. The 2012 team’s story started as players and coaches shuffled out of the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium knowing they had just let a Super Bowl trip slip through their grasp. That feeling drove them all season in 2012.
When the team returned to Baltimore following the game, it noticed a fan on the side of the road burning Cundiff’s jersey. There were questions all offseason about whether Cundiff would rebound. The Ravens showed their faith in the former All-Pro kicker by not signing a veteran. Instead, they added a University of Texas undrafted rookie named Justin Tucker, signing him well after he attended the team’s rookie minicamp on a tryout.
“I remember the first week or so Tucker was there. He had longer, shaggier hair, wasn’t quite as clean-cut and tight as he is now. He had some kind of puka shell necklace. He was very comfortable from day one,” Pitta said. “You looked at him like, ‘Does this dude know something that we don’t?’ This was just some undrafted free-agent kicker in there as an extra camp leg.”
Tucker certainly didn’t act like a player who was just going to be around for the summer before winding up on another team’s practice squad. He joked around with veteran teammates and showed off his singing and impersonation skills.
“Tucker carried himself like a franchise quarterback,” said cornerback Corey Graham. “He wasn’t like any kicker I had ever seen.”
He also rarely missed, and the pressure to keep pace with his unflappable rookie teammate seemed to wear on Cundiff. When Tucker would bury a long kick, he’d motion to head coach John Harbaugh to push the ball back five or 10 more yards.
“He was making everything,” said punter and holder Sam Koch. “I knew a few weeks into OTAs, that this might be something.”
Including the playoffs, Justin Tucker made 34 of his 37 field-goal attempts as a rookie. (Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)
So did the coaches. Terrell Suggs was notoriously hard on kickers, but assistant Matt Weiss told him that the Ravens had something with the rookie and suggested he give Tucker some leeway.
“I was like, ‘He’s a kicker,’” Suggs said. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, but it would have been nice to have him last year.’ Yeah, good point.”
Cundiff had a solid camp. Tucker was just more consistent and wasn’t carrying the baggage from a career-defining miss months earlier. The decision, heavily debated at the time, was a major factor in the team’s Super Bowl run. Tucker converted 30 of his 33 field-goal attempts in the regular season and all four of his playoff attempts. He provided the decisive points in the Super Bowl and booted Denver out of the playoffs with a 47-yarder in double overtime.
“He’s going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, but he was a young pup then,” said tight end Ed Dickson. “We didn’t realize what we had.”
Torrey Smith didn’t know what he was going to do. He just knew he had barely slept and he was emotionally exhausted. Still, it felt surreal to the second-year wide receiver that, as he watched television, the subject of his availability later that night against the Patriots was being debated.
“We were talking about a football game, but my brother ain’t coming back,” Smith said. “I was sitting there with my family and it was kind of the perspective of, you can stay here, but we’d rather watch you play and represent our family.”
Smith was at the team hotel the night before the prime-time Sept. 23 matchup against New England, when he was notified that his younger brother, Tevin Jones, was killed in a motorcycle accident. A member of the team’s security staff hustled Smith back to Virginia to be with his family. The Ravens had no expectation that he’d play that night.
“None of us expected him to play,” Suggs said. “He went out there and dominated. I’m still speechless about it. Goes to show you the kind of heart and character that Torrey Smith has.”
The Ravens trailed the Patriots 13-0 when Flacco connected with Smith for a 25-yard touchdown. Their deficit was 30-21 with four minutes to go when Flacco found Smith for a 5-yard score. Smith, who caught six balls for 127 yards, watched from the sideline with tears streaming down his face as Tucker made a game-winning 27-yard field goal with no time left.
An emotional Torrey Smith caught six passes for 127 yards in the Ravens’ come-from-behind victory over the Patriots in Week 3 of the 2012 season. (Rob Tringali / SportsChrome/Getty Images)
“I have a huge family and I don’t know how he mustered up that type of courage to go out there and play football within hours of his brother passing away,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith. “One of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever watched.”
It was a trying season physically and emotionally for the Ravens. Ray Lewis and Suggs were sidelined for months with what were initially feared to be season-ending injuries. Top cornerback Lardarius Webb tore up his knee in October. None of those things compared to the grief Torrey Smith had to play through.
When players and coaches filed into the team meeting room at the start of their Week 8 bye, there was already tension. The Ravens were 5-2 but had just been embarrassed 43-13 by the Houston Texans. Defensive players fumed, believing that the pass-heavy game plan hung them out to dry. Flacco threw it 43 times and running back Ray Rice had just nine carries. The defense was on the field for an astonishing 80 plays.
The mood only worsened when Harbaugh put the week’s schedule on the screen and it revealed the plan for padded practices. Safety Ed Reed, never shy to speak his mind, told Harbaugh that the team was mentally and physically tired and needed a break.
“They kind of went back and forth a little bit while the whole team was sitting there. Then, it just got chaotic,” Suggs said. “It wasn’t a mutiny, but it was definitely the one and only time that I’ve seen players and coaches kind of hash it out.”
Harbaugh wasn’t relenting. He tried to involve Haloti Ngata, one of the team’s gentle giants who rarely made waves, but Ngata sided with his teammates. Other players, including outspoken defensive backs Bernard Pollard and Cary Williams, made accusations. The tone got louder and more personal. The grievances extended far beyond the bye week practice schedule.
Ed Reed told head coach John Harbaugh that the team was mentally and physically tired following a blowout loss to the Texans in 2012. (Doug Kapustin / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
“Guys were angry about whatever they were angry about,” Flacco said. “That’s what being a family is all about. Sometimes, you’re going to get in those moments and you have to be honest with each other. As long as everybody does their best to not get their feelings hurt, you usually gain something from it.”
As the back and forth grew in intensity, Suggs fired off a text to Lewis, who was away from the team rehabbing a torn triceps. The message was simple: Things were getting ugly and Lewis’ leadership in the locker room was missed.
“Things were said that day that will always stay in that room, but that meeting needed to happen,” said guard Marshal Yanda. “People were not happy.”
The players and coaches left the meeting feeling like they were on the same page. The Ravens came out of their bye week and won four straight to improve to 9-2.
“The crazy thing was more that Harbaugh accepted players speaking up about how they felt about it,” Jimmy Smith said. “One of the first times where I was like, ‘Oh, Harbs really does care about what the players think.’”
For all his strengths, Flacco’s decision-making could be maddening. But this was perplexing even by his standards. The Ravens trailed the San Diego Chargers by three on Nov. 25 and faced a fourth-and-29 from their own 37 with two minutes left. And Flacco dumped the ball off to Rice two yards past the line of scrimmage. What was he thinking?
“You know how many times I thought that over the years with Joe?” joked Jimmy Smith.
Rice had seven defenders in front of him and one chasing him from behind. Flacco might as well have stood at midfield and waved the white flag himself.
“Probably a dumb play by me, but I didn’t want to just throw a ball up to four guys that I didn’t feel had a shot,” Flacco acknowledged. “Sometimes, you make dumb plays and you get away with it. If I could do it all over again and had no awareness of the situation, I’d probably hope that I threw the ball up and gave one of my guys a shot.”
There weren’t plays on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s call sheet designed to pick up 29 yards against a defense that was determined to not allow the ball over its head. When Flacco looked downfield after taking the snap, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Pitta were all flanked by Chargers.
“Look at the film. There was not a place to go with the ball,” Pitta said. “Joe could have definitely tried to force one in and something crazy could have happened. A lot of people will say, ‘How do you throw a checkdown in that situation?’ That was your only viable option in my opinion. You have to like your odds when you give the ball to Ray Rice in space.”
Rice caught the ball at the Ravens’ 39, needing 27 yards to pick up the first down. He sprinted down the right side, opening up some ground on a pursuing Shaun Phillips. As Rice reached the Chargers’ 48, he cut across the field, breaking an arm tackle and leaving three defenders behind. Chargers defensive back Corey Lynch stumbled before he could cut Rice off. Eric Weddle had Rice lined up five yards before the first down, but Boldin leveled the safety with a block. Stumbling, Rice managed to lunge forward. The spot gave the Ravens the first down and a replay review confirmed it.
“I don’t even think Joe felt like he was going to make it,” Jimmy Smith said. “He was like, ‘Checkdown, (screw) it, whatever.’ Then, Ray Rice took over.”
Hey Diddle Diddle Ray Rice Up The Middle https://t.co/3HznYvLq5y pic.twitter.com/Ij46p0t1n2
— Torrey Smith (@TorreySmithWR) October 8, 2021
The play became known as “Hey Diddle Diddle, Ray Rice up the middle.” Tucker tied the game with a 38-yard field goal with no time on the clock, and won it with a 38-yard field goal late in overtime. The sequence foreshadowed the late-game heroics that were to come.
“It was one of those plays like, ‘Geez, I can’t believe that worked out,’” Pitta said. “Looking back, man, we had to have that play. Like any good run, you’ve got to have luck and the ball has to bounce your way. Fortunately, it did at that moment.”
Exhilaration quickly turned into desperation, a common transition for the 2012 Ravens. After the second of three straight losses, an overtime defeat at Washington, Harbaugh made one of the boldest moves of his coaching career. He fired Cameron and gave quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell play-calling duties, a decision players still say was a major surprise.
“I love Jim and I wouldn’t give what we did back. But I think it was unfortunate the way it went down,” Flacco said. “Cam was a big part of us going on and doing what we did. It stinks the way it happened, but it’s the business. It wasn’t for us to worry about. You just go out there and play and maybe you can rally around it a bit.”
It didn’t give the Ravens an immediate jolt. They were throttled the following week on their home field by the Broncos, 34-17. The sight of Flacco laying face down on the turf after attempting to make a tackle on Chris Harris Jr.’s 98-yard interception return seemed to be the perfect image for a reeling team. Yet, the next week, the Ravens found something in a 33-14 beatdown of the New York Giants that clinched the AFC North.
“Even when Harbaugh made that change, that wasn’t a change I expected or I thought needed to come,” Torrey Smith said. “That goes to show you how bold Harbaugh was to make a change with a good coordinator. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it was the perfect storm. Everyone got healthy and we started playing very well.”
As the playoffs neared, Harbaugh made another significant move. He shook up the offensive line, inserting veteran Bryant McKinnie, who had been in the doghouse all season for his conditioning and practice habits, at left tackle, moving Michael Oher to the right side and playing impressive rookie Kelechi Osemele at guard. The Ravens’ reworked offensive line was dominant in the playoffs.
“A new offensive coordinator and three new positions on the offensive line,” Yanda said. “And we go on to win the whole thing.”
They thought it was going to be Lewis’ typical pre-playoff rallying cry. Many of them have been listening to these speeches for years and the timing was right, considering Lewis was returning from the triceps injury. But from the beginning when Lewis started talking, this one felt different. Lewis’ tone was different.
“It wasn’t about football. He was talking about life,” Suggs recalled. “Then he hit the, ‘This will be my last ride.’”
Lewis hatched this plan a couple of weeks earlier. He was 37 years old and was in agony as he tried to push his body to the point where he could at least take the field for the playoffs. He could barely sleep. During one particular night, he asked his daughter, Diaymon, what he should do.
“She said, ‘Daddy, come back for the playoffs, make that run and get out,’” Lewis said.
Lewis called Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome, and Harbaugh and informed them that would be the plan. The players only knew a few hours before Lewis told the media as the team ramped up preparations for its playoff opener against the Colts.
“I told them that I’ve seen the end and the end is in New Orleans,” Lewis said. “I’m not coming back to play football. I’m coming back to win a championship.”
Several Ravens players brushed away tears.
“I’m getting emotional just thinking about it,” Suggs said. “From the moment he said that, we all felt it. I can’t say we knew we were going to win the Super Bowl. Probably Ray knew. What we did know was Indianapolis didn’t have a chance. There was no way in the world we were losing Ray Lewis’ last home game. That’s what we were not (expletive) going to do.”
A relatively easy 24-9 win over the Colts earned the Ravens a rematch with the top-seeded Broncos. All week in Denver, there was talk of ending Lewis’ retirement tour. Instead, the Ravens ruined plans for an epic Manning versus Brady AFC title clash. When the Ravens arrived in New England to play the Patriots a week later, players noticed a countdown clock to Lewis’ retirement near the airport.
“Ray always had a timely fashion of making those announcements,” Dickson said. “I didn’t care where it came from, but that was the boost we needed.”
“I’m not coming back to play football. I’m coming back to win a championship,” Ray Lewis said heading into his final playoff appearance. (Damian Strohmeyer / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
There were so many redemption stories during the 2012 run. There was the team-wide angle, going back to Gillette Stadium — “the scene of the crime,” Suggs said — and avenging the heartbreaking loss in the AFC title game a year earlier. The Ravens didn’t hide from it. Their flight left Baltimore at the exact same time. They stayed in the same road hotel, followed the same routine. They felt like they had the better team the previous season, so why overreact?
They scored the game’s final 21 points in a 28-13 win after a decision was made at halftime to start attacking and stop playing conservatively. Flacco threw three second-half touchdown passes.
“At halftime, it was a broken record. Everybody was scared we were going to do the same thing,” Yanda said. “I’ve heard it enough times in my career. At halftime, the game plan comes up and it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to switch things up and break it open.’ You hear that 100 times and it happens like five out of 100. But that’s what we did.”
There was the redemption story of Jacoby Jones, who made more big plays during the 2012 season than perhaps anybody in a Ravens uniform. Jones had return scores in tight regular-season wins over Dallas and Pittsburgh. Then, of course, there was his 70-yard touchdown catch, deemed the Mile High Miracle, that tied the divisional-round playoff game. Before the blackout at the Superdome in Super Bowl XLVII, it was Jones who was mostly responsible for staking the Ravens to a 28-6 third-quarter lead with a 56-yard touchdown catch and a 108-yard return.
MILE HIGH MIRACLE 🙌
Remember when @JoeFlacco & Jacoby Jones did this nine years ago today in the Divisional Round? (via @nflthrowback) pic.twitter.com/jv0hj3avDI
— NFL (@NFL) January 12, 2022
Ironically, one of the reasons Jones was available before the 2012 season was because he fumbled a punt for the Texans in their divisional-round playoff loss in Baltimore. The gaffe figured prominently in the Ravens’ 20-13 win and surely contributed to Houston’s decision to cut Jones.
“They say everything happens for a reason,” Jones said. “I was about to sign with Carolina and play with Cam Newton. But when I got to the Ravens’ locker room, they were all like, ‘Go sign on the dotted line and get your stuff. This is going to be your locker right here.’”
Like Reed, Jones was from the New Orleans area. It was only fitting that his greatest professional achievement played out there, too. But before the Ravens could celebrate, they needed to make one final play. Jimmy Smith was an unlikely candidate to make it.
Months earlier, Jimmy Smith and Harbaugh sparred over whether Smith should play through a groin injury. Smith said he needed surgery. Harbaugh pointed out a litany of players who had played through the same injury. Smith got the surgery and returned five weeks later, in time to “get cooked” in Baltimore’s Week 15 loss to Denver. Harbaugh let him know about it, too. Smith, a second-year first-round pick, was demoted to fourth-string cornerback behind Chykie Brown and placed on the punt coverage team.
“My ego couldn’t handle it,” Smith said. “In my mind, there was no way. I’m running down on kickoffs and I’m watching Chykie Brown. It was like, ‘How am I not out there?’ There was no way he was better than me. I was livid.”
Harbaugh called Smith up to his office and predicted that the cornerback would make the deciding play in the Super Bowl. A few days later, Suggs approached Smith and reiterated the same message.
“I was like, ‘The Super Bowl? We just lost three games in a row and you’re talking about the Super Bowl?’” Smith said. “‘We’re not going to the Super Bowl. We’re getting our asses kicked.’”
On the final play of the Ravens’ decisive goal-line stand in the Super Bowl, it was Smith who held up 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree long enough to force an incompletion. But there was still more work to do.
Nursing a 34-29 lead, the Ravens were 12 seconds away from winning the Super Bowl. Koch was in the end zone, but the plan was not for him to punt out of it. The idea was for him to run around and step out of bounds for a safety with no time on the clock. The Ravens blockers were tasked with holding and then tackling any 49er that broke free. Except Smith apparently didn’t get the memo. His guy, Chris Culliver, got a free run and pushed Koch out of bounds with four seconds on the clock. The Ravens still had to cover a free kick against the dangerous Ted Ginn Jr.
As the “safety” on punt coverage, Smith was one of the last lines of defense. On the final play of Super Bowl XLVII, Smith missed the tackle on Ginn. As he lay on the turf, he turned around to see Josh Bynes bring Ginn down at the 50.
“I thought it was all over after I missed the tackle,” Smith said. “How do you go from winning the Super Bowl to literally losing it by yourself?”
Smith never had to find out. Nor did the Ravens, who basked in the confetti.
Ten years later, they are celebrating all over again.
“It was all providence,” Harbaugh said. “Yeah, all providence.”
(Top photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)