Ravens built for long haul

OWINGS MILLS -- The bucket of ice water dumped on top of coach John Harbaugh signaled more than the traditional football celebration and shenanigans. For the Baltimore Ravens, the chilly sideline revelry toward the end of their 36-7 demolishing of the hapless Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday was another indicator of something more significant afoot.

It was a continuation of a practice the Ravens began when they launched the season, long before they emerged as a surprisingly viable playoff contender. And they boldly announced that they intend to douse the coaching staff with freezing water for quite a while to follow.

"We've been doing it all year," said free safety Ed Reed, who broke his own NFL record with a 108-yard interception return for a touchdown. "We plan to be doing this in late January or February. So, that's just practice."

And discussion of the postseason outlook is no longer forbidden in the Ravens' locker room.

"We have the personnel to dominate anybody," linebacker Bart Scott said.

After weeks of downplaying the Ravens' growing chances of earning at least a wild-card berth as they're one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North and would be included in the playoffs if the season ended today, even Harbaugh is acknowledging his team's steady progression.

Only three teams in the AFC have a superior record to the Ravens: the Tennessee Titans (10-1), the New York Jets (8-3) and the Steelers (8-3).

"We know we have a shot at the playoffs," Harbaugh said. "We know we're in the hunt. Our guys understand that."

That grasp of the Ravens' promising situation includes remaining focused on the immediate task at hand: a Sunday road game against the 1-9-1 Cincinnati Bengals.

Despite winning five of their past six games and owning a 17-10 win over Cincinnati to open the season, the Ravens aren't looking past the Bengals. They haven't swept them since 2002, are 5-7 all-time at Cincinnati and have lost their last three games at Cincinnati.

"Any excitement that you feel is tempered by the fact that you have the Bengals in front of you," Harbaugh said. "That excitement goes away pretty quick when you don't play up to your capability on a Sunday afternoon.

"We want to be a better football team next Sunday than we were last Sunday. That's our responsibility as a football team. If we can do that, then you can look back at your body of work and say, ‘OK, this is how we got there.'"

The Ravens reversed course following a dismal showing in a 30-10 loss to the New York Giants where the defense got trampled for a season-high 207 rushing yards.

Against Philadelphia, they generated five turnovers and contributed to quarterback Donovan McNabb being benched while also stonewalling running back Brian Westbrook.

"The resilience of our football team really showed up in this game," Harbaugh said. "Our guys were resilient really through the week, the disappointing loss last week and then throughout the course of the game all three phases."

During the final few minutes of the game Sunday, middle linebacker Ray Lewis and special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo snuck up behind Harbaugh brandishing buckets of ice water. With Harbaugh's attention diverted on the action on the field, he was a sitting duck.

"It seems like we've gotten a coach every single week, so it was my turn," Harbaugh said. "I kind of figured it was coming, but I didn't think it would come with three minutes left in the game.

"I was talking to the officials. The officials aren't supposed to be setting up the Gatorade shower, right? So, it was shocking that it happened at that point."

Yet, this team has made a habit of exceeding expectations in many ways.

After being projected to win anywhere from five to eight games following last year's 5-11 disaster that cost former coach Brian Billick his job, the Ravens have already exceeded last year's win total by two games.

And they have scored at least 27 points in each of the past five wins.

The Ravens scored 24 points in the fourth quarter against the Eagles and have outscored opponents 84-23 in the final period this season.

Plus, they have outscored opponents 77-0 in the fourth quarter in their past five victories.

"Is it the intangible things? What exactly is it?" Harbaugh said. "Killer instinct, believe in one another, trust, confidence. I think good football players and good football teams, if they'll stay at what they're doing and not make mistakes as the game wears on, they'll find a way to win a game at the end. That's something we have to take with us for the next five weeks."

Although the Ravens' traditional strutting and swagger is still omnipresent, they're taking a low-key approach toward their drive to make the playoffs.

When asked about the Ravens' playoff chances, Reed replied with a laugh and a smile: "Give us a couple more weeks, and we can answer that question. We have an uphill battle."

The Ravens still have demanding remaining games against the Washington Redskins (7-4), Steelers and Dallas Cowboys (7-4) before concluding the regular season against the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-7).

"Just keep taking care of one team at a time, one week at a time," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "At the end of the season, if everything goes to plan, we'll see where we are. First things first, we've got to handle our business. We control our fate, pretty much at this point. So, let's just go at it."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital

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