The Ravens left for Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon, two days earlier than in a normal work week. Their final practice before Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers was light for a Thursday workout. On Tuesday, a usual day off, the team held a walkthrough.
Everything about Week 16 of the Ravens’ season has been compressed — everything, of course, except the hype and the pressure. The most important game of the team’s schedule is also the one least accommodating to the Ravens (8-6).
The Chargers (11-3) last played more than a week ago, in a Dec. 13 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. They do not have to worry about time lost on a cross-country flight. While the Ravens have rushed, the Chargers have waited: for the opportunity to watch the Ravens play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during a stress-free Sunday, for their top running back and wide receiver to get healthy, for kickoff to finally arrive at StubHub Center.
“It’s one more obstacle,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “It’s one more thing that makes it tougher. So bring it on.”
On Saturday, though, the Ravens and Chargers will both be equals in one sense. When the sun rises and alarm clocks sound that morning, kickoff will be somewhere in the distance for both teams, a half-day of emotional land mines and physical preparations still to navigate.
The Ravens have played seven straight games at 1 p.m. Eastern Time. With their season hanging in the balance, how do you handle the lull before Saturday’s prime-time game (8:20 p.m. ET, 5:20 p.m. Pacific Time) without going crazy?
“I usually just go crazy, I guess,” Harbaugh said Thursday, laughing. “I'll get a workout in in the morning. That'd be me, one thing. But you just have to study a little bit. You just wait, really, is what you do. It's a little easier when you're playing Sunday night and you get a chance to kind of look at some other games a little bit.”
There is another game Saturday, an important one: Washington Redskins at Tennessee Titans. With a Ravens loss Saturday and wins by the Titans, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend, the Ravens’ postseason hopes would be extinguished. Harbaugh could be forgiven for either forgetting or not knowing about Tennessee’s late-afternoon game. It has been a busy week.
Now, players said, is the calm before the storm. There will be offensive, defensive and special teams meetings Saturday, along with more individualized work with coaches. But the only thing worse than an ankle tweaked getting off the team’s chartered plane would be an overtaxed brain. There’s no benefit to overthinking what might happen in Carson, Calif.
“At this point, the [game] preparation’s done,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce said.
The game-day preparation, though, that begins when the Ravens rise from their hotel beds. One benefit to a later kickoff: more time to sleep in. Another plus: a more filling breakfast, too.
Before usual Sunday afternoon games, left guard James Hurst doesn’t nosh on anything except an occasional snack after a protein-heavy first meal. Given the longer wait Saturday, Hurst said, a bigger breakfast is a better breakfast.
After morning meetings, there’s only so much a player can do on the road. At home, late games can “take a little long” to arrive, Pierce said. To pass the time, he’s gone for a ride somewhere. He’s found a massage parlor to work out some kinks.
In California, his tentative schedule is simpler: “Probably just nap and catch a movie.” If “Creed II” is available for on-demand purchase, he might watch that. If not, he has a big-game movie. He said he has watched “300,” the hyperstylized war epic about the Battle of Thermopylae, enough times to recite it line by line.
“That’s my go-to,” Pierce said. “That’ll get you riled up.”
His goal, ultimately, is relaxation and concentration. Harbaugh has urged players before prime-time games not to watch the NFL’s daytime slate, or else risk an unhealthy emotional involvement. (He joked Thursday that he has not always followed his own advice.)
Tight end Mark Andrews said he had no plans to watch the Redskins-Titans matchup, even if his pregame schedule allowed. There are teammates to meet with, conversations to be had, songs to be listened to. The rookie’s game-day playlist bounces around genres, from Post Malone to Kings of Leon, with rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again (aka NBA YoungBoy) heavily in rotation.
“You're staying ready, but you're not peaking too early,” Andrews said. “They talk a lot about that here, and just not getting too hyped up. Whether it be listening to music that calms you down and whatnot, and just having fun with your teammates, that's something I like to do. Joke around, goof around and try to take your mind somewhere else other than the plays that you're going to be making.”
Hurst’s time-killing strategy isn’t much different from that of a millennial on vacation. The 27-year-old will play a game on his smartphone. He’ll read a book. He’ll FaceTime his family. Lately, he’s gotten into “The Final Table,” a Netflix culinary competition, and the Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
All of it helps. Until he’s reached the period before kickoff when his game-day routine would normally begin, Hurst tries to keep his mind off football.
“The more I think about it, just sitting there, especially on game-day morning, the more you think about it, you just tend to overthink things,” he said.
It is a useful strategy, players said, and one their coach perhaps wishes he could follow better himself. Days before the Ravens faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4 on “Sunday Night Football,” Harbaugh was asked during an interview on the team-produced “Ravens Report” how he melts away the minutes in a long wait.
“Some guys, they watch Netflix,” he said. “That's what I would do — if I knew how to get on Netflix."