Two days after Sunday's 23-20 overtime loss at New England, there are reasons for the Ravens to be encouraged going forward:
Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed is returning, running back Willis McGahee isn't leaving and pass-rushing linebacker Shawne Merriman might be joining the Ravens.
Coach John Harbaugh announced Monday that Reed will practice for the first time this season on Wednesday and McGahee will not get traded before today's NFL trading deadline. The Ravens were also linked to Merriman if the three-time Pro Bowl player clears waivers.
All this -- in addition to going 4-2 over the most brutal part of their schedule -- has provided a strong sense of optimism as the Ravens prepare to play the 0-5 Buffalo Bills before reaching a bye.
The Ravens are squarely on course for their third straight trip to the playoffs.
"You do get disappointed with the fact that we had an opportunity to go up [to New England] and put ourselves in real good position for a lot of long-term things," Harbaugh said. "But we do have the big picture in mind. We're 100 percent focused on Buffalo, and we're 100 percent focused on our season and what we can accomplish this season."
The Ravens are 13-point favorites over the Bills, their largest spread of the season.
"We are going home and then we are going to the bye week," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "It's going to be rough on Buffalo."
Other positive signs Monday were:
Reed will suit up for practice for the first time since undergoing offseason hip surgery. He has been on the physically-unable-to-perform list, which sidelined him for the first six weeks of the regular season.
With Tom Zbikowski filling in for Reed, the Ravens have fared better than expected, ranking third in the NFL in pass defense. But the secondary has recorded only two interceptions (one coming off a Hail Mary) in six games this season.
"It's only going to get better with Ed Reed back there," Harbaugh said. "He's going to add a dynamic that is going to be a problem for offenses because you never know where he's at. He covers ground, and he sees things that other guys don't see."
Harbaugh made no guarantees that Reed, who has the most interceptions in the NFL since he entered the league in 2002, will be able to play Sunday. Whether the six-time Pro Bowl safety starts or is limited against Buffalo is "up in the air," Harbaugh said.
"I know he's worked really hard, and when you look at him, he looks very fit," Harbaugh said.
"But the hip is the issue. How is the hip going to hold up with the football-related stuff? We'll have to see."
If Reed and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (quadriceps) are activated off the PUP this week, the Ravens would have to make moves to create space on the roster (the team could wait as long as 4 p.m. Saturday to do so).
One way the Ravens could free a spot is by placing offensive tackle Jared Gaither (back) on injured reserve. He has practiced once since Aug. 5.
"I asked him how he's feeling and he said it's unchanged through the weekend," Harbaugh said. "So, that's going to be part of the equation" when Reed and Ayanbadejo return.
Asked about the likelihood of Gaither's going on IR when those players return, Harbaugh said: "I don't know the likelihood of anybody right now. I haven't thought about percentages. I'm looking forward to getting those guys back and not looking forward to losing anybody. That's the tough dilemma of it."
One move that won't occur is trading McGahee. There was speculation that the Ravens might ship the backup running back before today's deadline. When McGahee didn't play Sunday at New England, the rumor mill was going all-out.
But Harbaugh made it clear that McGahee will remain with the Ravens in 2010.
"There is no Willis trade talk," Harbaugh said. "Unless there is something I don't know about -- which I think is almost impossible -- there is absolutely no way he's being traded. He will be on our team this week and for the rest of the season. He'll be a huge part of what we're doing."
Harbaugh said McGahee didn't play because the coaches felt Ray Rice (88 yards on 28 carries, a 3.1-yard average) was playing well and the plays called favored Rice.
Asked whether McGahee didn't play because he violated rules, Harbaugh said: "Willis has been great. Willis is 100 percent on top of everything, and he's been working really hard. He's been tremendous."
The Ravens are reportedly interested in Merriman if the pass-rushing linebacker becomes a free agent, according to Sports Illustrated's Peter King. This depends on Merriman's passing a physical and agreeing to a low-money deal, King said on Twitter.
According to a league source, the Ravens have discussed Merriman in meetings. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome told The Baltimore Sun that he couldn't comment on Merriman because he's under contract with the San Diego Chargers.