Ravens relishing bye to recharge, get healthy, plan ahead
OWINGS MILLS — Basking in the afterglow of a satisfying victory that earned the Baltimore Ravens a rare AFC North crown, a home playoff game and a coveted first-round bye, coach John Harbaugh allowed himself a few moments to enjoy the journey.
"The plane ride home, I have to admit, was pretty cool," Harbaugh said Monday one day after the Ravens' 24-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in their regular-season finale. "The locker room was really cool. Those are the moments that you really just never are going to forget." The AFC North champion Ravens (12-4) also regard the time off and the ability to get a multitude of injured players healthy for an AFC divisional round playoff game as invaluable.
As the second seed in the AFC, the Ravens now have the luxury of time off to get players like wide receiver Anquan Boldin (meniscus knee surgery), linebacker Jameel McClain (sprained knee), cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Tom Zbikowski (concussions), linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (sprained quadriceps), kicker Billy Cundiff (left calf) and offensive guard Marshal Yanda (bruised ribs) healed up. If not for the win over the Bengals, the Ravens would be playing in a wild-card game this weekend at less than 100 percent.
Instead, the Ravens' next football game isn't until Jan. 15 at M&T Bank Stadium against either the Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Texans or the Denver Broncos. And the Ravens are undefeated in eight home games this season. "It's a great win in a lot of ways," Harbaugh said. "The No. 1 thing we need to do is get healthy. It's a bonus, it's earned."
In the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year as a wild-card squad, the Ravens are the lone NFL team to win a playoff game each of the past three seasons. However, they haven't advanced to the Super Bowl since the 2000 season when they claimed the Vince Lombardi trophy. Having won four of seven playoff games under Harbaugh, the Ravens' season has ended on the road each of the past three years.
"We have an opportunity to take advantage of the week that we haven't had in the past to try and improve ourselves," Harbaugh said. "I think that's the plus of having a bye. That's where you have a little bit of a leg up, plus you get a home game. Every year has its own character. "Every year it's really hard to do. Every year is special. This year takes on a different character for the Ravens than the last three years. This is the most special, this is the one we're in. This is the one we had the high hopes for." Due to the status they earned by taking care of business against the talented Bengals, the Ravens have the prospects of a seemingly easier road to Indianapolis, site of the Super Bowl. They only have to win two playoff games to get there instead of three. And they get to play at least one playoff game at home where they haven't lost since Dec. 5, 2010 and have won 18 of their past 19 games.
"It's valuable, man," Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I'm looking forward to the rest and sitting at home and watching the first week of playoffs with my babies. You know, that's the biggest thing. To be division champs, that's your goal." Now that the Ravens are division champions, they are aiming toward an AFC championship and world title.
"It's one down and two to go in terms of championships," Harbaugh said. "They'll be no taking anything for granted, that's for sure." Five years ago, the Ravens went 13-3 and won the division title and were seeded second. Their season ended at home, though, as they fell to the Indianapolis Colts despite limiting Peyton Manning's offense to five field goals. "I've got a totally different team," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You're not dealing with the same dynamic we were a couple years ago. We've got a totally different dynamic with a different vision." "So, every step is going to be something totally new for us. Our coaches will approach it right and most importantly our players will approach it right."The Ravens went unbeaten in six division games this season, including a rare sweep of the Steelers.
And they haven't been seeded this high for five seasons.
"To end the regular season this way is very humbling because of the things you go through the course of a season — the highs, the lows, the ups and downs," said running back Ray Rice, who rushed for 191 yards and two long touchdown runs against Cincinnati. "To be able win the division on the road to secure a home playoff game, the feeling in that locker room was like no other. This bye week is going to be huge. We know what a bye week does. It gets people healthy." The Ravens plan to utilize this week to get injured players as much treatment as possible, strength and conditioning, self-scouting and preparing for the schemes of the Texans, Steelers and Broncos.
The players will practice only twice this week, working Wednesday and Thursday on the field. The Ravens will be off Friday, Saturday and Sunday before returning to work Monday after learning who they'll face next.
"Some of these teams we already started on last week," Harbaugh said. "We'll continue on that. We'll be breaking down the three teams that we have the potential to play a week from Sunday. And then we'll start in earnest, as soon as we know, in terms of developing the actual game plan. That will start on Sunday." Players began watching game video on their computers of the Bengals game on the flight home from Cincinnati.
I came into the building this morning and I think half our team was here already, in the training room, in the weight room, getting a little breakfast, just being around watching tape," Harbaugh said. "I think their whole mindset, as expressed to me by Jarret Johnson on the plane, along with a couple of other guys, is to be the best football team we can be next Sunday at one o'clock. That's what our team's thinking about right now." In the Harbaugh era, the Ravens are 4-0 following byes.
"Just because we are at home doesn't mean that anyone is giving the game to us," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We need to go out there and play hard. We need to win a couple more games this year." .
Ravens notebook: Boldin return could provide a spark
OWINGS MILLS — Anquan Boldin is slated to return to practice this week after being sidelined the past two games after undergoing knee surgery to repair a slightly torn meniscus. The veteran wide receiver could lend a boost to the Baltimore Ravens' passing game when they play either the Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos or the Houston Texans in an AFC divisional round playoff game.
"He'll provide a spark, certainly," coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "We'll be looking to have him be a big part of our offense." Boldin led the Ravens' receivers with 57 receptions for 887 yards and three touchdowns this season.
The Ravens' offense hasn't been very explosive without him over the past few games as wide receiver Lee Evans has failed to catch a pass. Only rookie Torrey Smith has caught a pass among the wide receiver corps during Boldin's absence, hauling in seven catches.
The Ravens had tight end Dennis Pitta line up at wide receiver during a 24-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, catching six passes for 62 yards and a touchdown.
Boldin said he almost felt well enough to play against the Bengals. He returned to practice on a limited basis last Friday and was upgraded from out to doubtful after being cleared by Dr. James Andrews, who performed his surgery.
"I'm cool," Boldin said. "I'm able to play. If it was a playoff game, I definitely would have been able to play. I played with it partially torn all year. It got to the point where my knee started catching and I wasn't able to run or anything like that.
"For me it was a tough decision whether or not to play. The guys told me they would take care of it. I feel like I made the right decision to get ready for the next game."
Starting inside linebacker Jameel McClain has a sprained medial collateral ligament and will likely be held out of practice this week. "Not considered serious, but will be something we have to deal with through the course of this week," Harbaugh said.
Rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Tom Zbikowski left the game with concussions Sunday, but Harbaugh said neither had symptoms a day later.
"That's really good news," Harbaugh said. "We'll just have to see once they do the concussion testing, but that doesn't appear to be a problem." Strong safety Bernard Pollard has a sprained wrist and an elbow contusion. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has a elbow laceration.
Nose guard Terrence Cody has a sprained left hip, but returned to play. Special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo sprained his quadriceps.
Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who missed the Bengals game with a concussion, is feeling better. "Symptoms are going away," Harbaugh said. "We'll know more throughout the week here, but he seems like he's improving." Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda played the entire game despite bruised ribs and cartilage that has separated from the bone.
"Sore, but came through well," Harbaugh said. "There is no one tougher than Marshal. That is a reflection of our whole team. He optimizes that, certainly. He won't tell you too much about it. "For him to say he could barely breathe and play the way he did, obviously it was huge for us. He is an anchor on our offensive line, and when he is in there, we're a lot better."
With kicker Billy Cundiff making a successful return from a left calf injury, the Ravens are going forward with him instead of Shayne Graham.
Graham remains on the roster, for now. That status could change if the Ravens need to sign a player at another position. "As long as Billy's healthy, he'll be our kicker," Harbaugh said. "I think we were really fortunate that Shayne was available, and I think if anything happens in the future and if he's still available, I wouldn't be surprised that if someone had an issue, they would pick Shayne up right away."
Graham connected on field goals from 48 and 43 yards against the Cleveland Browns, but was scratched against the Bengals as Cundiff came back to make a 42-yard field goal. Graham has connected on 18 of 19 field goals as an injury replacement kicker who hasn't earned a permanent job over the past two seasons. "We'll hold on to Shayne as long as we can now, but if we have to make a roster move, obviously, that's a direction we would go," Harbaugh said. "He did a great job. Why he's not holding on to a job right now, I'm not sure, but we were very fortunate for him to be able to come in and fill that gap for us."
Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed acknowledged Sunday that his tackling has been affected by a shoulder injury after also dealing with a nerve impingement in his neck in recent years. Reed tried to tackle Bernard Scott in the third quarter, but the Bengals running back busted through the arm tackle attempt for a 25-yard touchdown run.
"It ain't so much the nerve impingement as it was my shoulder," Reed said. "On that particular play, when I hit the guy and bounced off, it was just a bad angle. I can't do that. I understand that. I'm just as hard a critic as anybody. Just got to have better angles." Harbaugh deferred commenting on Reed's tackling, but defended his play in general
"That's a better question for Ed," Harbaugh said. "I've got a lot of confidence in Ed Reed, and I'm sure everybody else does. I guarantee that the people who are playing against him, they know where he is at back there. Our coverage in our secondary was excellent. That starts with Ed Reed. Ed covered up a couple of things that happened on some of those play-action downfield routes and covered some of those guys downfield one-on-one, a pretty tough task for a safety to do that."
Reed has intercepted three passes this season and has 52 tackles, but hasn't been nearly as physical lately.
"Believe me, Ed Reed is carrying more than his weight," Harbaugh said. "As far as what you're talking about, he'll address that. He's been around. He knows how to play, and he'll take care of that."
2012 SCHEDULE: The Ravens' opponents for next season have been determined by the NFL.
They'll play the NFC East and the AFC West. The Ravens' home games are against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants. And their road games are against the Steelers, Bengals, Browns, Houston Texans, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles.
QUICK HITS: The Ravens nearly had a few punts blocked against the Bengals, but punter Sam Koch narrowly avoided having that happen. "They got two; they got one real close, and they hit us with one rush where we had a basic rush that they run a lot, that we see a lot, that they caught us in when we had the protection going the wrong way," Harbaugh said. "We didn't redirect after the snap as well as we'd like to, so it's a technique thing that way. I'm glad Sam did a great job of getting that off. He saved us on that particular punt. So, they caught us. They did a good job with that one."
The St. Louis Rams fired coach Steve Spagnuolo, who worked with Harbaugh with the Philadelphia Eagles and is one of his closest friends in the coaching ranks. "It's a tough league," Harbaugh said. "I think that guys do a great job, win or lose. It's really competitive, and sometimes circumstances can catch up with a program and overwhelm it. Not to say that it couldn't be overcome, but sometimes decisions are made for whatever reasons. Obviously, I think Steve Spagnuolo is a great coach. He will be heard from in this league often. It will be, I guarantee you, with great success. He'll be doing just fine."
The Ravens have a few thousand tickets for their divisional round playoff game available for public sale today at 10 a.m. Tickets for the Jan. 15 game at M&T Bank Stadium are available for purchase through Ticketmaster. No ticket sales are being held at the stadium ticket office.
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