Who knew?

The Baltimore Sun

In a season when the Ravens have done the unexpected - doubling their win total from last season and closing in on a playoff berth - John Harbaugh was the one who provided the surprise yesterday.

The first-year head coach has given his players the day off on Christmas.

But is there any risk with this reward?

After adhering to essentially the same practice schedule for four months, the Ravens are tinkering with their routine only days before a potentially season-deciding game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"There are concerns among coaches and among players about any kind of change," Harbaugh said. "We're definitely creatures of habit. We just felt like the value of getting people with their families overrode that."

Harbaugh announced the revised schedule yesterday, but he had discussed the options with the veterans (his "30-plus group") about three weeks ago.

The Ravens had some flexibility this week because they played Saturday. That gave the coaching staff an extra day of preparation and allowed the Ravens to move up their practices.

Instead of practicing tomorrow and Thursday, the Ravens will work today (their usual day off) and tomorrow. After taking off on Christmas, the Ravens will return Friday.

In the end, the Ravens will have the same number of practices.

"We thought it was an easy decision to make," Harbaugh said.

Keeping with the theme of surprises, here are the five biggest ones with the Ravens this season:

1. Joe Flacco. : The rookie first-round pick was the team's third quarterback leading up to the third preseason game. Now, he is one win away from taking the Ravens to the playoffs.

The Ravens knew about Flacco's big arm and poise. But the 6-foot-6 pocket passer caught everyone off guard with his athleticism. He made a nifty 43-yard catch against Oakland and has two runs of more than 30 yards - the same number that LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis and Michael Turner have this season.

2. Le'Ron McClain. : The fullback took a few snaps at tailback during training camp because Ray Rice was the only healthy runner. That experiment has led McClain to become the club's top rusher.

The powerful back leads the Ravens this season in rushing yards (832) and carries (207). His eight touchdowns rank as the third-best single-season total in Ravens history. It's an unexpected turnaround for McClain, who had eight carries for 18 yards as a rookie last season.

3. The secondary. : Just like last season, injuries hit the defensive backs. This season, the Ravens were ready. Instead of turning to inexperienced cornerbacks David Pittman and Ronnie Prude, the Ravens have veteran backups like cornerback Fabian Washington and safety Jim Leonhard.

So, despite losing two starters for most of the season (cornerback Chris McAlister and safety Dawan Landry), the Ravens rank third in pass defense and top the NFL in interceptions (24). They have held quarterbacks to a NFL-best rating of 61.1 (the next closest is Pittsburgh's 66.0).

4. Trick plays. : These aren't the same old Ravens who line up in a two-tight-end I-formation for most of the game and generate big plays by throwing a jump ball to Todd Heap. Under first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, the Ravens use unbalanced lines (two offensive tackles on one side) and even two quarterbacks on the same play.

The results have been electric. Backup quarterback Troy Smith threw a long pass to Flacco and Mark Clayton launched a 32-yard touchdown pass to fellow receiver Derrick Mason. The special teams got into the act Saturday, when the Ravens converted a fourth-and-six with a fake field goal.

5. Offensive line. : It's easy to forget that none of the season-opening starters was at the same spot that he finished last season for the Ravens and the coaching staff hadn't determined the lineup until early June. The offensive line then had to adjust when right tackle Willie Anderson was signed just before the start of the regular season and right guard Marshal Yanda sustained a season-ending knee injury five games into it.

But the Ravens have done an admirable job up front. Their blocking has opened up holes for the NFL's second-best rushing attack (149.9 yards per game). The offensive line has also given up 30 sacks, which ranks in the middle of the NFL (15th). That number is more impressive when you consider the Ravens have faced six defenses that rank in the top eight in sacks, including the top three (Dallas, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia).


The Ravens are attempting to become the eighth team in four seasons to go from fewer than six wins the previous season to the playoffs the next:

Yr. Team Rec. Prev. yr.

'05 Bears 11-5 5-11

'05 Bucs 11-5 5-11

'06 Jets 10-6 4-12

'06 Saints 10-6 3-13

'07 Redskins 9-7 5-11

'07 Bucs 9-7 4-12

'08 Falcons 10-5-x 4-12

X: through 15 games

JAGUARS (5-10) @RAVENS (10-5)

Sunday, 4:15 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Ravens by 13

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