Ravens endure brutal schedule

OWINGS MILLS -- Call them gluttons for punishment, stubborn or just darn tough. Endurance, staying power and old-fashioned grit are a few of the major intangible reasons why the Baltimore Ravens have been able to make it through the NFL crucible.

The sixth-seeded Ravens (13-5) are preparing for Sunday's AFC title game against the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) in large part because of how they handled playing 17 consecutive weeks without a bye.

Because the destructive path of Hurricane Ike ravaged the city of Houston and damaged the roof of Reliant Stadium, the Ravens' Sept. 14 game against the Texans was postponed to Nov. 9 as Baltimore lost its midseason bye.

"I think we like it this way," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "After we lost the bye week, we understood where we were going to be. We understood what we had to do. We understood the obstacles that were going to be in front of us.

"No bye week, we were going to be on the road a majority of the time, we were going to play some tough opponents. So, it was all mapped out for us. It's not like everything blindsided us. We knew it was coming."

Despite getting ready to play their 18th consecutive game Sunday -- an unprecedented mark since the NFL launched the bye week in 1990 -- the Ravens haven't complained or slowed down their pace. Just don't remind them of what they've gone through.

When asked how the team has managed to last 17 weeks in a row without significant downtime, linebacker Bart Scott quipped: "Not talking about it like you are right now. You just made my back hurt by saying that. Thanks a lot. I mean our circumstances are our circumstances.

"People adjust. If football was a game where we didn't have a bye week, nobody would complain. We didn't have a bye week this year, we adjusted and moved on. No need to make a big deal about it."

Yet, it is a big deal. This has never happened in the past three decades. Ravens coach John Harbaugh immediately began adjusting the schedule to build in more time off to keep players fresh and reduced contact drills and fully-padded practices to account for the lost time off.

"Right after it happened, we talked a little bit about it," Harbaugh said. "The idea was that we were going to need to do something when the time came. We felt good about the fact that we had an opportunity to prepare for a week and practice for a week to improve our football team because we had a good week of practice.

"But we knew we were going to have to do something later. So when the time came, we just decided how we wanted to set it up."

Among the steps Harbaugh took was giving players days off as much as possible, including some Mondays and Tuesdays except for film study and treatment. He downplayed the impact of the changes, though.

"It was nothing dramatic," Harbaugh said.

Despite ranking second in the league with 19 players on injured reserve for the most in franchise history, including cornerback Chris McAlister, nose guard Kelly Gregg, strong safety Dawan Landry and offensive guard Marshal Yanda, the Ravens have been able to keep the train on the tracks. The Ravens lost 64 games from starters, which is 14 higher than any of the other playoff teams and the fourth-highest total in the NFL.

And the Ravens thrived on the road by going 4-2 during a critical six-week stretch that included five road games with one counting as a blowout win over the Texans.

"We've still got a few games left, and we're on the road again," Mason said. "We haven't got a bye week. Guys are nicked up, and people on Pittsburgh's side are as well. So, we're going to keep fighting or fighting."

The Ravens have won 11 of their past 13 games, and they aren't jealous that the Steelers had a bye on Oct. 12.

If Baltimore wins this game, they can have next week off to rest up prior to playing the NFC winner in the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla. Mason has had it particularly rough with a painful dislocated left shoulder and sore muscles around an injury he suffered Nov. 9 against Houston.

"No, I never run out of gas," Mason said. "The team has never run out of gas. This team still has got a lot of gas in them, a whole bunch.

"The tank is not going to run empty after Feb. 1. It's going to still be about half-full. Even if it seems like we're running out of gas, we're going to will ourselves to continue to play."

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

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