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Masks, solo hotel rooms and delivery pizza: Ravens prepare for first road game amid pandemic

The Ravens rookies running back J.K. Dobbins and linebacker Patrick Queen were not nervous about playing in their first NFL game.

Matthew Judon’s postgame road win celebration is so ingrained, he hadn’t even considered an alternative in our currently COVID-19 filled world.

After a victory in a hostile environment, the Ravens' exuberant outside linebacker would indulge himself, and his team, in a playful slide down the aisle of the plane, an otherwise harmless activity that might be reconsidered because of stringent NFL health precautions.

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“Dang, I didn’t even think about it. I was really going to victory slide — with my mask on,” Judon said Wednesday on a video conference call when asked about the tradition.

After cruising to a blowout victory over the Cleveland Browns at home in their season opener, the Ravens will play the Texans on Sunday in Houston, traveling out of Maryland for a game for the first time in nearly nine months — and under new conditions.

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The NFL and its players' association agreed to a list of terms to safely play amid the coronavirus pandemic, including safeguards for traveling teams. The size of traveling parties has been reduced from 110 people, plus players, to no more than 70 staff members, including coaches and other essential personnel. Most notably, masks are required everywhere, each player and coach will receive their own hotel room and eating out in restaurants is prohibited.

Which means that Judon, who normally ventures into a city to find the area’s highest-rated pizza place for a Saturday night meal, will have to settle for Uber Eats or another third-party delivery service.

“We’re just going to have to be chilling up in the hotel,” Judon said. “That’s just what it is for right now. It’s a crazy time and a crazy world right now, so for me to keep everybody on my team safe and for everybody else to be safe and also continue to play games, I’m just going to have to switch up what I do right now. Pizza can be delivered anywhere.”

Staying true to his desire to keep his team focused on its championship aspirations during an unprecedented time, coach John Harbaugh said that he hasn’t given much thought to how different travel will be, putting his faith in president Dick Cass and other behind-the-scenes officials who take care of the logistics.

“It’s a challenge in some ways. The teams that traveled last week had to deal with it,” Harbaugh said. “The teams that travel this week for the first time will have to deal with it for the first time. We’re very confident in the people that organize all that for us: [senior vice president of operations] Bob Eller, Dick Cass, [senior director of team travel] Joan [Fennekohl], [director of football information] Megan [McLaughlin]. We have just an amazing group of people that organize for us, [team operations coordinator] David Ghostlaw and others. So, we’ll be fine.”

As the first team to conduct travel for an NFL game this season, Texans coach Bill O’Brien acknowledged there were “certain differences.” The Texans arrived at their hotel to prepackaged meals that everyone ate in their isolated rooms and the team used 10 buses to transport personnel because of 50% capacity limits.

But the trip to Kansas City overall left O’Brien with “nothing to complain about.”

Other NFL teams have made their own changes to accommodate players on the road. The Green Bay Packers' charter plane departed later than usual for Minneapolis to decrease the amount of time players were cooped up in their rooms. The Los Angeles Chargers conducted more meetings on Zoom the night before their game in Cincinnati, as opposed to gatherings in hotel ballrooms.

With the NFL being the last of the major professional sports leagues to return to play, it’s witnessed how deviating from protocol on the road can threaten a team or league. An outbreak within the Miami Marlins' organization that was caused by several players not following protocols during a trip to Atlanta put Major League Baseball in peril just days into the season before positive cases dipped and the league got back on track.

Such violations could result in a fine or suspension for a player in the NFL, a stipulation that defensive end Calais Campbell welcomed when he worked with the league in the offseason as a member of the NFL Players Association committee.

After finishing its first week of play, the NFL and NFLPA announced Wednesday only two new confirmed cases among players and five new cases among other personnel between 40,479 tests administered from Sept. 6 to Sep. 12. It’s an encouraging sign for the league after half of its teams left the safe confines of their facilities but not one that’ll make the Ravens any less vigilant.

“I don’t know if it’ll be too much different,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “I think we’re still flying out, doing all the same things, staying at the hotel. A lot of the same things [that] we’re going to try to keep similar. But I know as a team, we just have to be able to lock in, stay focused [and] keep our energy being away and not really having fans and stuff like that. So, we’ve got to bring our own energy and keep this team going.”

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