Ravens cherish AFC North title, and its benefits
OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP)
For the Baltimore Ravens, the benefits that come with their first AFC North title since 2006 begin with a much-needed bye that should enable several injured players to heal before the team begins a markedly different playoff drive.
By defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 24-16 on Sunday, the Ravens (12-4) earned the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a two-week rest.
''It's a great win in a lot of ways,'' coach John Harbaugh said Monday before rattling off the names of 10 ailing players, all of whom should be ready to play in Baltimore's next game - at home on Sunday, Jan. 15.
The injury list starts with wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who missed the final two regular season games with a knee injury. Safety Bernard Pollard sprained a wrist and received a bruised elbow on Sunday; linebacker Jameel McClain sprained an MCL; defensive tackle Haloti Ngata cut his elbow and guard Mashal Yanda played with sore ribs.
Others who will benefit from the week of rest: Defensive tackle Terrence Cody (strained left hip), linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (concussion), defensive backs Tom Zbikowski (concussion) and Jimmy Smith (concussion) and kicker Billy Cundiff (left calf).
''The No.1 thing we need to do is to get healthy,'' Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh called the victory over Cincinnati ''kind of a one-for-two'' - meaning Baltimore won't have to win this weekend to advance to the second round.
That's the path the Ravens had to take in each of the previous three years as the wild-card entrant, and that didn't work out too well. Although Baltimore won at least one playoff game each time, it advanced to the AFC title game only once and is still seeking its first Super Bowl appearance since the 2000 season.
There are no guarantees it's going to happen this year, but there's no question the path to the Super Bowl is easier as division titlists. In addition to getting a bye this weekend, Baltimore opens the postseason at home, where it's 8-0 this season.
''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.''
The Ravens worked the entire season to get where they are now. Beating Pittsburgh twice, going unbeaten within the division for the first time, knocking off Houston at home, all of those accomplishments enabled Baltimore to attain its highest postseason seeding in five years.
''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,'' running back Ray Rice said. ''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.''
Now, instead of getting ready for a quick turnaround and facing the prospect of playing three straight games in the road, the Ravens can relax to a degree before resuming play at a stadium where they haven't lost in well over a year.
''It's a bonus,'' Harbaugh said. ''It's earned.''
''I'm looking forward to the rest and sitting at home and watching the first week of playoffs with my babies,'' linebacker Terrell Suggs said. ''You know, that's the biggest thing. To be division North champs, that's your goal.''
That's the priority in the regular season. Much is left for the Ravens to accomplish, however, and being a No. 2 seed provides nothing beyond a week off and a home game.
''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.''
The schedule for the players this week: Practice on Wednesday and Thursday, then take off the next three days before returning Monday. During the weekend, the Ravens will learn who they next face. It's either going to be Houston, Pittsburgh or Denver.
''Some of these teams we already started (scouting) last week,'' Harbaugh said. ''We'll continue on that. Then we'll start in earnest, as soon as we know, in developing the actual game plan on Sunday.''