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After whirlwind week, Ravens set for strangest game in team history — on a Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh

Nine days ago, the Ravens faced a crisis.

They had just squandered an 11-point third-quarter lead and lost in overtime to the Tennessee Titans. The defeat, their third in four games, pushed them out of the final wild-card spot in the AFC playoff standings. Quarterback Lamar Jackson suggested the Titans “wanted it more” than the Ravens. With injuries and frustrations mounting, a team many pundits had picked to reach the Super Bowl seemed in danger of going down as a great disappointment.

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Oh, to return to those innocent days.

Beginning the next afternoon with the news that running backs Mark Ingram II and J.K. Dobbins had contracted COVID-19, the Ravens fell into a pandemic-fueled nightmare of daily positive tests, game postponements (three of them now) and internal punishment for a strength and conditioning coach who, sources say, did not follow NFL-mandated protocols.

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Never in their 25 seasons in Baltimore have the Ravens prepared for a game as strange as the one they’re scheduled to play in Pittsburgh on Wednesday at the suitably odd time of 3:40 p.m. If they take the field, they’ll do so with a roster decimated by the same virus that’s haunted the world in 2020. They’ll play the undefeated Steelers without Jackson, without two of their three top pass catchers, without complete allotments of offensive or defensive linemen.

Before Monday night, their last full pre-lockdown practice was a walk-through the day after the Titans loss. When they prepared to gather Monday morning, the NFL stopped them amid continuing concerns about the outbreak; not until 6:30 p.m. did the Ravens report for a socially distanced walk-through and conditioning session at the team facility. By then, a new specter had emerged in the form of a National Weather Service forecast calling for up to 5 inches of snow in Pittsburgh beginning early Tuesday morning.

Barring any unexpected test results, the Ravens will travel to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, after a second walk-through. On Wednesday, they’ll head to Heinz Field for a game whose latest rescheduling came after a group of Ravens players, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, made clear their displeasure. Frustrated with the team’s handling of the outbreak and the NFL’s insistence on playing the Week 12 game, some Ravens were determined to not play Tuesday, a source said. One group even preferred to play Thursday.

But by Monday night, the Ravens’ reworked schedule was official, and seemingly settled. They would play the Steelers on Wednesday afternoon — ESPN reported that NBC was committed to broadcasting the Christmas tree lighting at New York’s Rockefeller Center in prime time — and the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13 on Tuesday, Dec. 8.

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In sum, it was another unsettled day in a stretch unlike any other for a franchise that prides itself on stability.

The Ravens have not formally commented on the outbreak beyond a Friday statement from coach John Harbaugh — “Our organization has a plan in place, and we will be prepared to play the Steelers” — and a release announcing the team’s new plans for this week.

But players turned to gallows humor on Twitter as they processed the horror and absurdity of it all.

“Virtual Tuesday Night Game?” cornerback Marlon Humphrey wrote Monday morning, when the game had been postponed just twice.

“I’m on the Marshawn pre game [sic] ritual if we gotta play this game,” inside linebacker L.J. Fort added, referring to retired running back Marshawn Lynch’s recent revelation that he always drank a shot of Hennessy before taking the field.

NBC’s game crew also marveled at the weirdness.

“I’ve never gone to practice on one Tuesday for a game the next Tuesday,” play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico said, before the switch to Wednesday was reported. “We found out the game was postponed during our production meeting call with Lamar Jackson on Wednesday. I drove home, had Thanksgiving dinner, went to Green Bay and called Bears-Packers, and now start preparing for who knows what type of game.”

“I was able to spend Thanksgiving with my family for the first time in ages. That was the silver lining,” sideline reporter Michele Tafoya said. “Now, it’s just waiting to see when the next shoe drops — whatever that is. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a schedule change like this one.”

The Ravens have certainly played unusual games in the past, some of them against the archrival Steelers.

In the December 2015 chapter of the rivalry, the 4-10 Ravens threw the Steelers’ playoff hopes into doubt with a 20-17 win behind quarterback Ryan Mallett, who was filling in for an injured Joe Flacco. Mallett never won another game as an NFL starter.

In a Thanksgiving Day game in 2013 at M&T Bank Stadium, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin stepped on the field during a Jacoby Jones kickoff return, earning himself a $100,000 fine from the NFL in a game the Steelers lost, 22-20.

If you like your strangeness in the form of wild endings, there was the 2007 game in which Cleveland Browns kicker Phil Dawson knocked a 51-yard field goal off the left upright and over the crossbar, only to watch the ball strike a support post and bounce back toward the field. Game officials ruled the kick no good, and the Ravens left the field thinking they had a 30-27 win. After conferring, the officials changed their call and summoned the Ravens back to lose in overtime, 33-30.

If we’re talking bad injury luck, the Ravens endured Week 17 of that doomed 2015 season with 20 players on injured reserve, including Flacco, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and five of the team’s six Week 1 wide receivers.

And of course, no one can forget the lights going out in the middle of Super Bowl XLVII with the Ravens up 28-6 on the San Francisco 49ers. After the 34-minute power outage, they barely hung on to win by three.

None of these misfortunes or in-game oddities match up with the sheer breadth of difficulties the team has faced going into this Steelers matchup, which was supposed to be played Thanksgiving night, and then Sunday afternoon.

We don’t know exactly which Ravens will play against the Steelers, because several were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list as high-risk close contacts and could be eligible to return for Tuesday night. The team activated outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson, offensive lineman D.J. Fluker and defensive tackle Broderick Washington on Monday.

The NFL Network reported that Dobbins and Ingram will be eligible for Wednesday’s game because their 10-day isolation period after positive COVID-19 tests will be over. But we know a team that was already wounded by season-ending injuries to left tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Nick Boyle will bear no resemblance to the one that faced Tennessee.

The Ravens won’t have to start a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback, as the Denver Broncos did Sunday. Robert Griffin III will fill in for Jackson, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, and he actually steered the team to a win over Pittsburgh last December. But this time, he’ll work with an offense missing starters at every position. On defense, the Ravens will be without key starters in defensive end Calais Campbell and outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee. They’ll even miss long snapper Morgan Cox.

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With many players likely to be elevated from the practice squad into significant roles, the 6-4 Ravens will try to upset the 10-0 Steelers with a roster fit for the fourth game of a typical preseason. It’s hardly the setup they hoped for as they try to make in-season repairs and push their way back into the playoff bracket.

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In August, Ravens president Dick Cass, who coordinated the organization’s response to the pandemic, looked at the problems Major League Baseball was navigating and said: “They’re still playing games. They’re being flexible. We will probably see some of that as well. We have to be flexible, and we have to be willing to adjust.”

After three-and-a-half months of relatively smooth operations, however, the Ravens surely did not expect a blow this sweeping.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jonas Shaffer contributed to this article.

RAVENS@STEELERS

Wednesday, 3:40 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

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