Ravens on edge and ‘itchy’ as December football intensifies

With little margin for error this month, the Ravens are feeling the heat as they can't afford to lose.

It's tempting to view Sunday's game against the reeling Philadelphia Eagles as the calm before the storm, but be assured that the Ravens are not viewing it that way.

Their postseason prospects might seem to depend almost entirely on their chances of beating the first-place Pittsburgh Steelers on Christmas Day, but looking past any NFL team — even one that has lost six of its past seven games — would be a prescription for a restful January.

By some accounts, the Ravens have seemed more anxious and on edge during their shortened buildup to the Eagles game than in advance of any other game this year. Wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. got some unwanted publicity when he hurled his helmet across the practice field in apparent disgust on Thursday and coach John Harbaugh delivered a get-your-heads-right pep talk within earshot of the media at the end of that same practice.

Though Ravens officials chided some media members for misrepresenting those two episodes, Harbaugh conceded during his Friday media briefing that there is a progression of intensity as the regular season reaches crunch time in December.

"There are different types of intensity," Harbaugh said. "I think the game-playing intensity is really at the highest level every single week. If you're not at your highest level from a playing intensity standpoint, you can get hurt in football and you can get embarrassed. But the intensity for what's at stake, the level of mental focus, playing on a razor's edge every single play, I do think it ramps up in December and it probably ramps up again in January when you get to the playoffs."

Linebacker Terrell Suggs also poked at reporters Thursday for making too much of "the smallest things," but didn't deny that the Ravens were on edge after the disappointing loss to the New England Patriots that knocked them off the top of the AFC North.

"You've got to understand, we're all a little messed up," Suggs said. "It's December football and we're all a little itchy."

They have every reason to be, since they probably will have to win out to reach the playoffs. It's possible that the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins could fall back if the Ravens win two of their final three games, but the only way to assure they'll get into the postseason is if they run the table and win the division.

Obviously, that reality landed hard when the Ravens came up short at Gillette Stadium on Monday night. But Harbaugh insisted that it was not unusual for him to rev up the team after practice and pointed out — to no one's surprise — that it certainly wasn't the first time that Smith had thrown his helmet in practice.

"There's nothing different here about what you're doing, but I think you're always trying to communicate to one another in order to be the best we can be," Harbaugh said. "And that's what we do here. We put it out there. We talk. I guess something that we believe in is communication — honest communication — and we're not real sensitive.

"We lay it on the line with each other. We have a lot of fun. We laugh a lot. We're a really loose group and we're a very focused group. We've got a bunch of focused guys and guys who aren't afraid to take responsibility and expect a lot from one another."

A lot will be required, especially with Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz coming off a pretty good game against the Washington Redskins and the Ravens backfield now without top cornerback Jimmy Smith, whose status for the remainder of the season is in serious doubt.

Wentz appears to be on his way to stardom, but he threw three interceptions when the Cincinnati Bengals collapsed the pocket on him two weeks ago, so the Ravens will try to do the same thing and keep him from getting comfortable. If they succeed, they probably will be on to Pittsburgh for a Christmas showdown that likely will decide the division championship.

Though the Eagles might appear to have little to play for at this point, they also have nothing to lose and a talented rookie quarterback who still has much to prove, which makes them impossible to overlook.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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