Ravens' outlook still bright despite injuries

OWINGS MILLS -- Shorthanded periodically because of injuries and Jamal Lewis' suspension, the Baltimore Ravens have managed to sidestep absences while delivering a few stiff-arms to opponents.<br><br> Halfway through the NFL season, the defending AFC North champions have yet to field their complete starting lineup.

Despite having starters miss a total of 30 games, including six from Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, three from All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, eight from Pro Bowl outside linebacker Peter Boulware and two from Lewis, the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year, Baltimore (5-3) remains in the playoff hunt. Each previous time the Ravens have been 5-3, they've qualified for the postseason including a Super Bowl title in 2000.

The Ravens are two games behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-1), considered the most dominant, resurgent force in the league with a 6-0 mark since imposing rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger became the starter.

Ironically, it was a hit by Ravens cornerback Gary Baxter on Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox in Baltimore's 30-13 win that led to Roethlisberger's insertion. The Steelers have consecutive wins over New England and Philadelphia, two previously-undefeated teams.

The Ravens travel to Pittsburgh Dec. 26 in a game likely to have major playoff implications.

"We've already played them once, I think we beat them if I remember correctly," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Right now, it's all about the New York Jets and then next week it'll be about the Dallas Cowboys.
"When we come to Pittsburgh, the situation will be clearly defined as to what that game means and we'll worry about it then. We really can't get drawn into it."

Largely on the strength of the NFL's top-ranked scoring defense (14.1 points) with an average of 10.2 points allowed in their five wins, the Ravens are contending for a playoff berth.

In the categories of total offense (257.4) and passing offense (123.), the Ravens rank last in the league and have scored only three offensive touchdowns in the past 16 quarters.

Meanwhile, an opportunistic defense and rookie return specialist B.J. Sams have combined for six touchdowns with Lewis rushing for five of the offense's 10 scores.

The Ravens' remaining schedule includes road games at the Jets (6-2) on Sunday, at defending Super Bowl champion New England (7-1) Nov. 28, at Indianapolis (5-3) Dec. 19 before playing Pittsburgh the following week. The combined record of their remaining eight opponents is 37-28 compared to the Steelers' opponents' combined mark of 33-31.

Since Billick's tenure began in 1999, the Ravens have the NFL's third-best winning percentage (.690) in November and December with a combined mark of 29-13.

"A lot of getting into the playoffs is carrying around the emotional pressure of November and December," Billick said. "We've been pretty good at that around here in the past going on six years now and we're going to have to do the same thing and use all of those experiences because there are constant pressures on and off the field that come to bare: what this game means and what your personal circumstances are.

"You have players beginning to think about, 'What are my Pro Bowl numbers? What are my catches? What does my contract say? Am I out of contract? Am I going to get a new contract?' All of those things come into play now, and you address them the best you can. That's all part of it."

NOTES: Reed is the AFC Defensive Player of the Week. … Weaver and Washington Mystics player Alana Beard spoke at Baltimore Poly Tuesday about the importance of staying in school.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times and ravensinsider.com

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