Pop quiz

With little time to prepare for tonight's test, the rested Ravens hope for an `A' - and a division title

Pro football

November 30, 2006|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN REPORTER

When the Ravens take the field in Cincinnati tonight, they are banking that a slow approach will allow them to become one of the fastest teams ever to clinch a division title.

Crunching four days of preparation into two for this short week, the Ravens have taken an unorthodox practice routine: no helmets, no hitting and no running.

The Ravens have intentionally gone through the motions leading up to their all-important showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals, a move that they hope will make them more physically fresh in one of their most anticipated games of the season.

Inside their locker room, there is a message written in purple: "No need for talking. We have something to do. 2006 Division Champs. Bottom line."

"The short week is tough, but I think we have enough veteran leadership to understand what we are fighting for," linebacker Bart Scott said. "To be able to go on the road and clinch the division is a huge goal. To go out there and take care of business, I think that's what championship teams do when they have the opportunity. We have to prove it ... and get our [division championship] hats and T-shirts on the road."

If the Ravens upset the Bengals - the Ravens are three-point underdogs - they would become the first team this year to earn a playoff spot and only the second to clinch a division title in November since the NFL went to the eight-division format in 2002.

It would cap a whirlwind week for the Ravens, who are coming off a physical win over the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

Some of the coaching staff had been breaking down film a day before the Steelers game, but the game plan wasn't formalized until Monday.

The players were given Monday off and didn't report again until noon Tuesday. Instead of the 5 1/2 hours of practice during the usual workweek, the Ravens had one-hour walkthroughs Tuesday and yesterday.

The Ravens then left on a 4:30 flight to Cincinnati yesterday, exactly three days since their game against the Steelers ended.

"It's going to be one of those deals where you're going to have to battle through it," tight end Todd Heap said. "It takes time to heal week to week and game to game. The thing everybody has to think about: They have to do it, too."

Even with the advantage of not having to travel, the Bengals have taken a different schedule.

Returning to work Monday night, Cincinnati didn't have a day off in between games, practicing all three days between their win at Cleveland and tonight's game.

Although the Bengals didn't have physical practices, their workouts were far from the Ravens' walkthroughs.

"[The short week is] more of a physical challenge, making sure that you keep your freshness but be alert," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "They obviously present a lot of looks, so our offense has their work cut out for us that way. We've got to present them with some new looks and don't let them stay in their comfort zone."

The marquee matchup will be the Cincinnati offense, which has scored at least 30 points in three straight games, against the Ravens' defense, which ranks No. 3 in the NFL in average points allowed (13.3).

The key could be how much pressure the Ravens can apply on quarterback Carson Palmer. The Ravens tied a team record with nine sacks Sunday and might be facing a Bengals offensive line missing three starters.

"I think our most valuable player is our coordinator," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "Rex [Ryan] comes up with things when you'll see guys running free all the time. That's a frightening thing. It's frightening to me just to watch it. Somebody's going to get hurt. I'm not laughing."

The Ravens could have help slowing down the Bengals' deep passing game. The forecast for tonight is "soaking rain."

"That's a new term for me. That means a lot of rain I think," coach Brian Billick said. "So obviously turnovers will become huge."

Four days after essentially knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs, the Ravens could put a dent in the Bengals' playoff hopes.

A Ravens' win would allow them to clinch the AFC North on the home turf of last season's division champions and silence Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

It was earlier this month that he said the Bengals had "the better players" after they lost to the Ravens, 26-20.

No Ravens have responded - yet.

"There is no other team in the league that I would much rather be playing than the Cincinnati Bengals," safety Ed Reed said. "I'm sure they feel the same way."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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