The path gets steep

Rest of the sea­son pits Ravens against seven tough op­po­nents

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jeff Zre­biec

After get­ting the weekend off, the Ravens will re­turn to prac­tice to­day in a po­si­tion they haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced this deep into a sea­son since 2012. The Pitts­burgh Steel­ers’ loss to the Dal­las Cow­boys on Sun­day as­sured the Ravens of en­ter­ing Week 11 in sole pos­ses­sion of first place in the AFC North with a 5-4 record.

That means plenty to the Ravens, who haven’t won their divi­sion in four years.

“That’s some­thing that’s re­ally im­por­tant to us,” coach John Har­baugh said Mon­day. “Whether it’s in a game or whether it’s in a sea­son, you want to get the lead. When you get the lead, you want to keep the lead. When you keep the lead, you want to ex­pand the lead. That’s what we aim to do in ev­ery game, not al­ways suc­cess­fully, but that’s our goal. Cer­tainly, that’s go­ing to be our ob­jec­tive dur­ing the course of the sea­son.”

If the Ravens are to main­tain that spot, they’ll have to nav­i­gate an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult fi­nal seven games, start­ing with Sun­day’s matchup with the league-best Dal­las Cow­boys (8-1) at AT&T Sta­dium.

After the Cow­boys, the Ravens will play the first of two games against the Cincin­nati Ben­gals, a team that has beaten them five straight times. They’ll play host to the sur­pris­ing Mi­ami Dol­phins, who have won four con­sec­u­tive games, Dec. 4. Then the Sun­day, 1 p.m. TV: Ch. 13 Ra­dio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM Line: Cow­boys by 7

Ravens will travel to play the New England Pa­tri­ots, whose 7-2 mark is tied for the best in the AFC.

The Ravens will fin­ish up with a home game against the Philadel­phia Ea­gles (5-4), fol­lowed by al­ways-dif­fi­cult road games in Pitts­burgh and Cincin­nati.

All told, the com­bined win­ning per­cent­age of the Ravens’ fi­nal seven op­po­nents en­ter­ing Mon­day was .644.

“We get ex­cited about ev­ery one of these games,” Har­baugh said be­fore quickly bring­ing up the team’s two most re­cent vic­to­ries, against the Cleve­land Browns and the Steel­ers. “We were pretty ex­cited about Thurs­day night, and we were pretty darned ex­cited about that Sun­day af­ter­noon be­fore that against our archri­vals. This is an­other one, go­ing down there and play­ing a team with the best record in foot­ball and with the best of­fense in foot­ball.”

The Cow­boys have pow­ered their way to eight straight vic­to­ries be­hind a re­lent­less rush­ing at­tack, led by Ezekiel El­liott, and the steady play of rookie quar­ter­back Dak Prescott, and have the NFL’s third-ranked of­fense and its top ground game. As good as El­liott has been — he’s con­vinced many that he’s not just the league’s Of­fen­sive Rookie of the Year, but a front-run­ner for Most Valu­able Player — the Cow­boys of­fen­sive line has in­spired com­par­isons to some of the league’s best units of all time.

Many Ravens play­ers and coaches surely watched the Cow­boys rack up 422 yards, in­clud­ing 209 all-pur­pose yards and three touch­downs by El­liott, in a 35-30 vic­tory over the Steel­ers on Sun­day at Heinz Field.

The Ravens will counter Dal­las with the league’s No. 1-ranked over­all de­fense, and the top-ranked run de­fense, setting the stage for a best-on-best matchup un­der the re­tractable roof at AT&T Sta­dium.

“Cer­tainly that par­tic­u­lar part of the game, that matchup is go­ing to be huge,” Har­baugh said when asked about the Ravens’ abil­ity to con­tain the Cow­boys of­fense. “In the game, it’s go­ing to be very im­por­tant. It might be the most im­por­tant part of the game.”

If noth­ing else for the Ravens, Sun­day’s road game cer­tainly rep­re­sents a step up in class. The Ravens’ five vic­to­ries were against teams that cur­rently have los­ing records. The com­bined win­ning per­cent­age of the four teams the Ravens have beaten, in­clud­ing the win­less Browns twice, is .270. Mean­while, their four losses are against teams with a com­bined win­ning per­cent­age of .556. The only los­ing team in that group is the New York Jets.

A sched­ule that was fa­vor­able in the first half is un­re­lent­ing in the sec­ond. The Cow­boys have con­vinced many pun­dits that they’re the best team in the NFC, and Prescott’s strong play will make long­time starter Tony Romo a spec­ta­tor Sun­day. The Ea­gles and Dol­phins are far bet­ter than any­one ex­pected, and the Pa­tri­ots are still the Pa­tri­ots.

The Ben­gals and Steel­ers have been dis­ap­point­ments so far, but re­main sig­nif­i­cant threats to turn things around in time to take the AFC North. And while a lot can change in a cou­ple of weeks, the Ravens most ten­able path to the post­sea­son re­mains win­ning their divi­sion. With three teams in the AFC West — the Kansas City Chiefs, Oak­land Raiders and Den­ver Bron­cos — al­ready with seven wins, it’s go­ing to be aw­fully dif­fi­cult for the Ravens to make the post­sea­son as a wild card.

The Ravens’ two re­cent divi­sional wins, which fol­lowed the first four-game los­ing streak of the Har­baugh era, vaulted them into first place in the AFC North. But they didn’t erase the team’s of­fen­sive strug­gles, which are ex­ac­er­bated by health prob­lems up front.

Rookie start­ing left guard Alex Lewis suf­fered a high an­kle sprain against the Browns and he’ll be lost for roughly six weeks, if not the whole sea­son. Start­ing right guard Mar­shal Yanda, the team’s best of­fen­sive line­man, has missed three of the past four games with a shoul­der in­jury that hasn’t got­ten bet­ter.

Both of­fen­sive line­men could go on in­jured re­serve, which­would­p­re­sent an­other chal­lenge for the Ravens to over­come. Har­baugh, how­ever, be­lieves his team has al­ready got­ten through its worst stretch.

The op­po­si­tion, though, will get much tougher in the weeks ahead.

“Whether we win a cou­ple of games in five days or we lose four games in a row, which was re­ally tough — there was noth­ing tougher re­ally that we’ve had here in that stretch — our build­ing doesn’t crack,” Har­baugh said. “Yeah, ev­ery­body is hap­pier. The postgame locker room was a lot more fun the last two weeks. It’s a lot more fun to win. Guys en­joy that, but from work ethic, the thing that I know about our guys, our guys aren’t go­ing to all of a sud­den say, ‘We’ve ar­rived,’ by any stretch. Our guys are go­ing to go work and know that the last one doesn’t mean much if you don’t win the next one. You have to stack wins to be suc­cess­ful. That’s what we’re aim­ing to ac­com­plish.”

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