Ravens coach John Harbaugh was reminded again of the importance of getting a first-round bye late in the fourth quarter Sunday as player after player walked gingerly to the sidelines, unable to return to a game they knew that they needed to win.
Down "six, seven, eight guys" to various injuries that occurred throughout the course of the afternoon, the Ravens closed out the regular season with a 24-16 victory over the upstart Cincinnati Bengals. Their immediate reward was the third AFC North championship in team history and their first since 2006, and assurance of at least one home playoff game.
But perhaps as gratifying — and potentially as important — is the 13-day layoff between games that the Ravens will now enjoy. After a 12-4 regular season, the Ravens won't play again until they host a divisional playoff game at 1 p.m. on Jan.15.
The Ravens will play the Houston Texans if they defeat the Bengals Saturday. If the Bengals win, the Ravens will face the winner of Sunday's Broncos-Steelers contest. Either way, the Ravens figure to be significantly fresher and healthier by then.
"I just think it's pretty obvious," said Harbaugh when asked about the benefits of the bye. "It's going to help us to have a chance to get healthy. If we would have had to play this week, we would have gotten after it. In the past years, we've been in the same situation, injury-wise, going into the Wild Card game. We would have dealt with it, but it's a bonus. It's earned. I think our players earned it, they appreciate it and they'll take the best advantage of it."
Of course, after a grueling 16-game season, few — if any — teams are healthy at this time of year. And the Ravens will certainly get no sympathy from the Texans, who were down to their fourth quarterback Sunday, or the Steelers, whose quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is essentially playing on one leg, and whose standout running back, Rashard Mendenhall, reportedly is out for the playoffs with a significant knee injury.
But from a Ravens' perspective, the injuries certainly have started to pile up at the wrong time. Defensive backs Jimmy Smith, Tom Zbikowski and Cary Williams, and reserve linebacker Dannell Ellerbe all have sustained concussions in the past two games. Williams played well against the Bengals, Ellerbe's condition has improved over the past couple of days and Smith and Zbikowski, who were knocked out of Sunday's game with head injuries, showed no concussion symptoms today but will have to pass a series of tests before they are allowed to return to practice.
Starting inside linebacker Jameel McClain sprained his knee Sunday and probably won't practice this week. Neither will fellow linebacker and special teams standout Brendon Ayanbadejo, who was knocked out of the Cincinnati game with a quadriceps sprain.
Defensive linemen Terrence Cody (hip strain), Haloti Ngata (elbow laceration) and Cory Redding (ankle), safety Bernard Pollard (wrist sprain/elbow contusion) and kicker Billy Cundiff (left calf) are all dealing with nagging things.
Then, there are players like middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who is still hampered by a toe injury that caused him to miss four games, and right guard Marshal Yanda, who played Sunday despite a bruised thigh and loose cartilage in his ribs that makes it tough for him to breathe. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin came close to playing Sunday but instead sat out for the second straight game after having knee surgery just a week and a half ago. All three are expected to be ready for the Ravens' first playoff game.
"Winning the game was huge, but this week is going to be huge," said Ravens running back Ray Rice, who rushed for 191 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals' usually tough run defense. Rice's 70-yard touchdown run was the Ravens' first score against Cincinnati and his 51-yard touchdown scamper was their last. "The bye week gets people healthy. We came into this game a little banged up, but when you get that bye week, we're going to come back full strength."
The last time the Ravens had a playoff bye was in 2006. In their first game after it, they looked completely out of sorts offensively and were beaten at home by the Indianapolis Colts, 15-6, in the divisional playoff round.
Reminded about that after Sunday's victory, Lewis said, "You're not dealing with the same dynamic we were a couple of years ago. We've got a totally different dynamic with a different vision. So every step is going to be something totally new for us. Our coaches will approach it right and most importantly, our players will approach it right."
The Ravens are off Tuesday but they'll return to their Owings Mills complex for practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Harbaugh then will give his team Friday through Sunday off before the players return to practice Monday. By then, their second-round opponent will be known.
Harbaugh said that the team already started studying their potential playoff opponents last week and a game plan will be put in place Sunday night. Until then, he said the organization has hatched a four-part plan to best utilize the bye week.
The first two parts of that plan revolve around trying to get healthy and keeping up weight training and conditioning work. The third part is what Harbaugh called "self study," analyzing areas where the Ravens need to improve and then implementing those things in Wednesday and Thursday's practices. The fourth part is giving extra practice repetitions to continue the development of some of the younger players.
"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 have a home game. We're going to try and use it to our advantage."
Harbaugh said that process already started late Sunday night when many of the players were already watching tape on the iPads from the just-completed Bengals' game on the flight home.
"I came into the building this morning and I think half our team was here already, in the training room, in the weight room, getting a little breakfast, just being around watching tape," he said. "I think their whole mind set, as expressed to me by [linebacker] Jarret Johnson on the plane, along with a couple of other guys, is to be the best football team we can be next Sunday at one o'clock. That's what our team's thinking about right now. That's kind of where we're at."
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