Since defensive end Rob Burnett can't play, Michael McCrary can't say no.
McCrary must start despite not practicing for the ninth straight week. He must start despite recently contemplating knee surgery.
But with Adalius Thomas - their only backup end - replacing Burnett on the left side, the Ravens are calling on McCrary to block out the pain for another few weeks at right defensive end.
McCrary, though, is thriving rather than merely surviving. Persevering in Pro Bowl form, the nine-year veteran leads the Ravens with 7 1/2 sacks and is fourth on the team with 57 tackles.
"I have to do what I have to do," McCrary said. "My job is to perform on Sunday, and that's what I'm paid to do. Whatever I have to do to perform on Sundays is what I'm doing.
"I would love to practice if I could practice. I've always been a believer in you play how you practice. There's a reason I'm not practicing. But I just have to focus on the mental part and pretend like I practice."
McCrary, 31, said he had thought about having arthroscopic knee surgery this week. That schedule, though, had to be delayed when Burnett severely strained his left calf in the final minute of the Monday night game.
The Ravens suspect that McCrary has torn cartilage in his knee, which could sideline him from one to three weeks after being repaired.
"It's going to need to be done, but when?" Ravens trainer Bill Tessendorf said. "Ideally, it would be the bye week [Dec. 3-9]. But it's truly week to week. It's one of those things that we have to see how it reacts. Recently, it hasn't reacted too well."
Right now, McCrary is considering having the surgery in December.
"I want to make sure we have that shot in the playoffs before I get this done," McCrary said. "Cleveland is definitely in our way. We've got to knock them out. I'll try to time it, and Rob kind of interfered with my plans. But this is something that has to get done. It's just not an option right now."
Surgery has become a routine of sorts for McCrary. Since joining the Ravens in 1997, he has had four operations on his knees.
But there were no knee surgeries for McCrary this off-season, and his increased work is paying dividends now.
"The tribute to him is he came into camp with the best lower-body leg strength," Tessendorf said. "That has allowed him to play at this point."
Although he doesn't practice, McCrary isn't left out completely. He sits off to the side with defensive assistant Mike Smith during the workouts and takes "mental reps," going over the plays and talking about how he would react to what he saw.
"Over the last few weeks, he's becoming very comfortable with it," Smith said. "When you can't do it physically, then we try to do it the next best way and that's to visualize it."
The injury may have limited his ability to make cuts but has not taken away from his snap-to-whistle motor. He'll spin, jump and crawl in his tireless pursuit of a tackle.
That relentless intensity was evident in the final goal-line stand at Tennessee. Before safety Corey Harris made the hit on Titans quarterback Steve McNair, Mc- Crary was closing in on McNair after having run clear across from the other side of the field.
"When it comes to game time, I don't have to time to think about it, and that's my mentality," McCrary said. "I don't have time to be injured. I'll be injured after the game. When I'm out there, the injuries aren't allowed to affect me."
His passion also has an ulterior motive.
"He also wants to go to the Pro Bowl," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said of his two-time Pro Bowl end. "That factors why he doesn't want to sit down right now. Once November comes around and [the voting is] settled, then it's easier. He isn't stupid."
The Ravens' other defensive end has endured an equally painful first half of the season.
After a career year in 2000, Burnett ranks 11th on the team with 31 tackles, a telling statistic of his struggles with groin, knee, hand and calf injuries this season. The splint on his broken left hand won't be removed for another two to three weeks, and his calf injury could keep him out next week, as well.
"It's depressing enough so I have to try to be optimistic about it," Burnett said. "My luck is bound to change. These things happen. But fortunately, it hasn't happened to me throughout my career. I just got to ride this storm out to get better as soon as I can to help these guys."
But the 12-year veteran said the injuries haven't convinced him to retire at season's end.
"Right now, I'm thinking about getting back as soon as possible and get back for this run," Burnett said. "Every year for the last four or five years, I've been thinking that possibly I might retire. So, I've always had that window open. Right now, there is a decision that has to made when all is said and done."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Cleveland Browns
Site: PSINet Stadium
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)
Line: Ravens by 8