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THE BALTIMORE SUN

Derrick Mason flashed a big grin when talking about a pressure-filled second half of the season. With only eight games remaining in the regular season - and perhaps his career - the veteran wide receiver expressed unexpected excitement as the Ravens sit at the crossroads of their season.

Their 4-4 mark at the midway point of the football calendar might be cause for concern for some teams. A second-half schedule that includes a showdown with the undefeated Indianapolis Colts and two meetings with the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers might lead to some anxious faces in the locker room.

Yet the Ravens' attitude has been surprisingly loose. Their players remain remarkably calm.

"I'm very optimistic," Mason said of the team's playoff prospects. "It's a challenge, and that's what you want as a competitor. Whether you're cutting grass and the guy next door is cutting his grass faster, you want to cut your grass a little bit faster. So, it's always a challenge in whatever you do, and it brings out the best in you."

The Ravens have reached the halfway point of the season at 4-4 only two previous times in their 13-year history. Both seasons (1997 and 2007) resulted in second-half collapses. The Ravens finished 6-9-1 in 1997 and 5-11 in 2007.

The players acknowledge that their record puts them in a tough spot heading into the final stretch.

"It's going to really test our character moving forward," Mason said. "Are we going to give in, or are we going to continue to fight as a team? I believe we are going to continue to fight."

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis said the team has to "weather the storm" to be successful in the second half of the season.

"Weather whatever little things you're going through right now, so in the second half of the season we can be better," he said. "And I look at this Monday night [game against the Browns in Cleveland] the same way. It's a great opportunity to come out and see some things differently, but it's also a great opportunity to play real fast and not worry about anything. Just let the game take care of itself."

As the Ravens look ahead, here's a look back at the first half of their season:

Offensive Most Valuable Player: Running back Ray Rice. Some might make an argument for quarterback Joe Flacco, but Rice has been the motor of the Ravens' redesigned offense. He has accounted for 60 percent of the team's rushing yards (573 yards) and one-third of its catches (46). Of the Ravens' seven plays of 33 yards or more, Rice has produced five of them.

Defensive MVP: Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson. It was only a few seasons ago when everyone was worried about how the Ravens were going to replace Adalius Thomas. Instead of having Thomas' flash, Johnson has used hard work and determination to become the steadiest force on defense. His five sacks lead the Ravens.

High point: Routing the previously undefeated Denver Broncos. After losing three straight contests, the Ravens delivered a statement by beating the Broncos at their own game. From Lardarius Webb's kickoff-return touchdown at the start of the third quarter to Flacco's 14 straight completions to end the game, the Ravens finished off the NFL's most dominant second-half team.

Low point: Steve Hauschka misses a potential game-winning, 44-yard attempt in Minnesota. The Ravens' electric fourth-quarter rally - they trailed 27-10 with 10 minutes left - came to a crashing halt when Hauschka hooked a field-goal try on the last play of the game. If the Ravens fall one win short of the playoffs, this is the moment that will haunt them the most.

Low point, Part 2: The Ravens were penalized three times - which included Lewis' crushing hit on wide receiver Chad Ochocinco - on the Cincinnati Bengals' game-winning drive in a 17-14 loss Oct. 11.

Offense's unsung hero: Right guard Chris Chester. It was expected that Marshal Yanda would take back his job when he was fully healthy. But Chester's play made him the permanent starter.

Defense's unsung hero: Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. The Pro Bowl special teams ace was making an unexpected impact on defense. He was the second-leading tackler on the team for the first quarter of the season before sustaining a season-ending leg injury.

Best offseason move: Trading up to draft Michael Oher. The Ravens gave a fifth-round pick to the New England Patriots to jump three spots to select Oher with the 23rd overall pick. A physical and relentless right tackle, Oher made Sports Illustrated's midseason All-Pro team.

Worst offseason move: Not re-signing Matt Stover. The Ravens decided not to retain Stover because of his age, veteran salary and inability to kick off effectively (which means using an extra roster spot on a kickoff specialist). So, in some respect, the Ravens sacrificed fourth-quarter consistency (Stover was 24-for-24 in the fourth quarter from 2006 to 2008) for having tight end L.J. Smith active.

Biggest surprise, offense: Eliminating Willis McGahee from the game plan. In the first four games, he led the NFL with seven touchdowns. In the past four games, he has 12 touches.

Biggest surprise, defense: Replacing Trevor Pryce in the starting lineup with Dwan Edwards. In 2007, Edwards started for Pryce when the four-time Pro Bowl defensive end was injured. Now, the Ravens are starting Edwards over Pryce because of performance.

Scariest moment: Jared Gaither motionless on the field at New England. The Gillette Stadium crowd fell silent Oct. 4 as the 6-foot-9 offensive tackle was put onto a stretcher and then carted away. Gaither missed only two games with the neck injury, but he still is feeling the effects of it today.

Most thrilling moment: Lewis' game-clinching tackle at San Diego. Shooting an inside gap on fourth down, Lewis wrapped his arms around running back Darren Sproles in the backfield with 30 seconds left to preserve a 31-26 victory.

Best call: Flacco's 31-yard touchdown pass to Mark Clayton that won the season opener. Facing an all-out blitz from the Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens went for the jugular when Flacco hit Clayton on a post pattern to break a tie at 24 late in the fourth quarter. It was a high-risk, high-reward play call.

Worst call: Roughing-the-passer penalty on Terrell Suggs. The Ravens' defensive end-linebacker got flagged when he grazed the knee of New England quarterback Tom Brady. It was the fourth time in the first four games that the Ravens were flagged for roughing the passer.

Biggest hole filled: The Ravens' quarterback carousel has officially stopped. Flacco is on schedule to finish with the team's best single-season completion rate (64.9 percent) and quarterback rating (90.2). He also is on pace to have the second-most touchdowns and passing yards in a season for a Ravens quarterback.

Biggest hole remaining: Bart Scott's old linebacker spot. The Ravens are missing Scott more than most expected. They are trying to fill his void with three linebackers: Tavares Gooden, Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain.

RAVENS @BROWNS

Monday, 8:30 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13, ESPN

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens

by 11

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