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Ultimate goal within reach for Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe

Ultimate goal within reach for Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe
Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe points to the crowd at Paul Brown Stadium in their Oct. 26 game against the Cincinnati Bengals. (Andrew Weber / USA TODAY Sports)

They went around the meeting room and spoke one by one, each Ravens' offensive lineman laying out his goals for the upcoming season.

They talked about staying healthy and improving both individually and as a unit, about regaining respect and getting back to being a physical, downhill-running football team.

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When it was Eugene Monroe's turn to speak, the Ravens' starting left tackle was straightforward and succinct: he told his teammates and position coaches that his goal was just to win. Sounds simple enough, yet it's been anything but for Monroe. Over his first five NFL seasons, he's never been on a team that has finished with a winning record, never mind played in a postseason game.

There have been times, like in 2012 when he was on a Jacksonville Jaguars' team that went 2-14, where the postseason seemed like some far off, unreachable goal. But when he lines up against his former team Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium, Monroe expects the postseason to feel closer than ever.

The Ravens (8-5) need victories in their final three games, starting Sunday against the woeful Jaguars (2-11), to assure themselves of at least an AFC wild-card wild card berth. It's possible that two more wins would get them into the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons, but the Ravens, who are also just a half game behind the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals, don't want to have to depend on other teams for help.

"Much of this team has been there before, and some of them have won it all," Monroe said. "They know how important this time of year is. That's permeated through everybody in this locker room. Our goal is going out on Sunday, being the most physical team on the field, executing and getting the win."

Monroe, who the Ravens acquired in a trade from the Jaguars last October for 2014 fourth and fifth-round draft picks, had nothing negative to say this week about his four-plus years with the struggling franchise.

Running back Justin Forsett and middle linebacker Daryl Smith, two other ex-Jaguars who have become big contributors for the Ravens, also avoided taking any shots at their former organization. All three have moved on and are focused on an opportunity that hasn't presented itself often in their careers; or in Monroe's case — at all.

"It's nice, man. I've been playing seven years, and I think I've been to the playoffs twice," said Forsett, who was released by the Jaguars in March after one injury-plagued season with them. "One of those times was on a 7-9 [Seattle Seahawks'] team. So, just to be in the hunt it's a blessing, and I don't take it for granted. I'm excited to go out there and capture these wins down the back stretch."

In Monroe's first two seasons with the Jaguars after they made him the eighth overall pick in the 2009 draft, Jacksonville entered December in a decent position for the playoffs, only to falter down the stretch. The Jaguars went 7-9 in 2009 and 8-8 in 2010, but in the following three seasons, they were a combined 11-37.

Monroe started 62 of 65 games during his Jaguars' career, but with Jacksonville's 2013 season going nowhere, the organization having already drafted his successor in Luke Joeckel and looking to stock up on draft picks, trading the left-tackle wasn't a difficult decision to make.

Monroe, soft-spoken and serious, doesn't say much about how the losing — along with the criticism that he hadn't developed into a perennial Pro Bowl player — wore on him in Jacksonville. But what is clear is that he immediately embraced the opportunity to play meaningful games late in the season.

"One of the first things that he mentioned actually when he came here was the fact that we had a chance to make the playoffs, and he wanted to be on a team that has a chance to do that," said left guard Kelechi Osemele.

Re-signs with Ravens

The Ravens finished 8-8 last year, losing their final game to keep them out of the playoffs. Monroe, who was a free agent following the season, signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract in March to stay with the Ravens.

The appeal of staying with a winning franchise figured prominently. Monroe's wife is from Columbia, and he enjoys being so close to family. He also appreciated how much he was welcomed by new teammates and coaches when he came over during the 2013 season.

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"It's definitely unique in comparison to where I've been," Monroe said. "But really, it comes down to the people that are here. The guys that they bring in here are all guys who have that mind set. It makes it easy. Everyone pretty much thinks the same, has the same goals. Everyone here is concerned with being dominant and winning games. That's what it comes down to."

Monroe described this as a "unique" year. For the first time in his NFL career, he missed an extended stretch of the season, sitting out four games following knee surgery. When he returned, there was some rust that he had to work off.

But the 27-year-old has played much better of late as the Ravens' offensive line continues its resurgence. Forsett is third in the league in rushing, and quarterback Joe Flacco has been sacked just 16 times.

"The opportunity for us now is right in front of us," Monroe said. "It's just something that everyone is honed in on, knowing that we're in control of our destiny in terms of winning the rest of our games and seeing how this thing plays out."

Growing pains for Jaguars

Meanwhile, progress remains slow for the Jaguars. They've been hit hard by injuries and rookie quarterback Blake Bortles has experienced plenty of growing pains while surrounded by mostly inexperienced targets and a leaky offensive line.

Bortles spoke Wednesday about making the most of the final three weeks of the season and wanting to go into the offseason on a high note.

Monroe and several other Ravens have been there and know full well what it's like to be playing out the string. Daryl Smith has played 11 NFL seasons, but he's appeared in just three career playoff games, the last one coming in 2007. Center Jeremy Zuttah is in his eighth NFL season and he's never experienced the postseason. It took tight end Owen Daniels until his sixth season with the Houston Texans before he played in his first playoff game.

"It adds some juice to the end of the year," Daniels said. "From [Monroe's] perspective, his history, he's probably used to making non-football plans for January — family plans, vacation, whatever it is. That's depressing when you have to do that. To be at this juncture for him and for our team, having this right in front of us, it's an exciting time. It's at the end of the season and you're kind of worn down but that gives you a little extra boost to keep going."

Monroe is a man of routine. He adheres to a rigid workout regiment and goes through meticulous preparation before each game. But teammates have noticed subtle changes in his demeanor in recent weeks. As right tackle Rick Wagner describes it, there's an increasing focus and a general excitement about what lies ahead.

"It's something that I haven't had the opportunity to be a part of," Monroe said. "There's definitely a little more hunger. It's just part of the deal. When you can see that goal as you approach it, it makes you realize that it's real. There's a real opportunity before us. It's a cool time of year."

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