Ravens pull off redeeming act but don't let it take center stage

The Baltimore Sun

There are certainly times when it seems the Ravens have but one card in their entire deck. During the past several years, nearly everyone in purple has clung to the notion of rampant and unfair disrespect. It seems to come from opposing players, from the NFL, from the media, from fans.

So it's somewhat refreshing to see a new theme - a much more viable one - wrap itself around this season's team, one more productive, more constructive and more ambitious. With the end of the regular season visible over the horizon, already this season has been one marked by a widespread sense of redemption.

From an organization that won just five games one year ago. To an offensive coordinator who was fired in Miami after winning just a single game. To a rookie quarterback who came from a small college. To a fourth-year wide receiver who had failed to make an impact. To a head coach no one had heard of. To an aging linebacker and an aging receiver whose best years were believed to be far behind them ...

You get the idea.

But even more refreshing: No one is clinging to the redemption card this week. No one seems to be acting as if Sunday's matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers is a clash of ego, pride or personal satisfaction.

The battle of division rivals is always emotion-filled, and Sunday's will be no different. Not that you need a reminder, but way back in Week 4, the Steelers handed the Ravens their first loss of the season, kicking a field goal in overtime.

"But this game isn't about redemption," linebacker Bart Scott says. "It's about going to the playoffs."

That's an important acknowledgment coming from a player and a team that at times struggle to properly channel their emotions in the right direction. Let fans attach redemption to Sunday's game if they want; but the players are still trying to redeem something bigger. And the only way to do that is to swallow coach John Harbaugh's pill-sized cliches as certified gospel.

"The Steelers stand between us and the division championship, and they're next up on the schedule," Harbaugh said, treating the black and gold as mere happenstance on the schedule.

By this point, we know when Harbaugh talks, his aim isn't necessarily candor. It wasn't with the Chris McAlister situation. It probably wasn't Monday when he verbally applauded Willis McGahee, whose usefulness in a Ravens jersey suddenly rivals that of a sporting-goods-store mannequin.

But you can't help but notice that Harbaugh's focused, monotonous, the-next-game-is-the-only-game mantra resonates with his players. That previous meeting with Pittsburgh? It means as much to the Ravens this week as the previous 20 meetings with Pittsburgh.

"It was a long time ago now," wide receiver Mark Clayton says. "It doesn't mean anything."

Scott says players will be fired up Sunday. But not necessarily because the Steelers are on the opposing sideline.

"When we saw this game on the schedule, we knew that it could all come down to this," he says. "Now that the moment is here, the important part is to just win a football game. You don't need to draw on emotion. You just got to win the game because it has implications on the postseason."

The players don't need to waste their time looking for measuring sticks. But that doesn't mean that we can't. From locker to locker, this season's team isn't as much a group that is playing above its collective head as it is a batch of players, coaches and team officials who've rebounded incredibly well from last season. They've shrugged off doubts and criticism like gusts of minor annoyance.

The talent, those who find the talent and those who develop the talent have done a remarkable job of moving forward as though last season never happened. From the top on down, it might be the most unifying characteristic in the Ravens' locker room.

The best example might be offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who followed the indistinguishable footsteps of Rick Neuheisel, Jim Fassel and Matt Cavanaugh. He has finally given Ravens fans a reason to skip their scheduled restroom break on alternating possessions.

"He builds his offense on fundamental soundness - attention to detail, protecting the football, being physical, all those things," Harbaugh says. "He's creative, and he's gutsy."

It's only smart for the coaches and players to ignore their accomplishments this season. Honestly, anything short of a playoff spot and a stab at the division title will feel disappointing.

So they don't have to bask in this truth, but that doesn't make it less true: Even before Sunday's rematch with the Steelers, several players and the organization as a whole have made great strides toward redemption.

But expect them to keep talking about disrespect.

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