Peter Schmuck: Entering much-needed bye week, Ravens sitting pretty in AFC

October 04, 2011|Peter Schmuck

It might be something of an understatement to say that the planets seem to be lining up almost perfectly for the Ravens.

They have already beaten the two teams that met in the AFC title game last season, and both of those teams are reeling. Their postseason nemesis in Indianapolis apparently will be a nonfactor. The New England Patriots look formidable, but they don't play the Ravens in this regular season and they still have games remaining against most of the other AFC contenders.

If you want to get picky, the Ravens could have one more victory, but we already found out from the Patriots a few years ago that perfection has become unattainable in NFL. The fact that the Ravens are 3-1 is just fine, and that record looks even better when you look at what has been going on around the rest of the AFC.

Really, what more could a potential Super Bowl team ask, other than for the bye week to fall almost perfectly for the Ravens to get several key players healthy?

Perhaps under different circumstances, getting the bye with 12 games left on the schedule would not be ideal — and the Ravens have been on the wrong end of a scheduling inequity or two — but coach John Harbaugh was so happy about the break that he gave his players almost the entire week off.

"It really is [ideal] with the number of injuries we have," Harbaugh said during his Monday news conference. "Normally, you like to have it kind of in the middle, but where we are at injurywise right now, it is the best timing we could have had."

It's the best timing for several reasons, not the least of which is that it sets the Ravens up well for a run of games that could really pad their advantage over the other AFC stalwarts. They will catch one of the up-and-coming conference contenders — the Houston Texans — at home off the bye, then play a couple of very winnable games (at Jacksonville and home against the Arizona Cardinals) before going to Pittsburgh for their rematch with the Steelers.

From that point on, the only elite opponent left on the regular-season schedule is the San Diego Chargers, who will host the Ravens at Qualcomm Stadium in Week 15. Can you say home-field advantage through the playoffs?

OK, that's way down the road, but don't think Harbaugh wasn't looking at the big picture when he went against form to relax the schedule this week and let his players get a serious physical and mental blow.

"I think it was a very wise decision," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "It's easy to say: 'We're just going to work. … We're going to grind, grind, grind.' But, that just shows the maturity of Coach Harbaugh and this team to say, 'OK, what's really best for this team?'"

Meanwhile, the Steelers would love to have this week off after a very damaging loss to the Texans that left quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in a walking boot and top linebacker James Harrison with a fractured facial bone. The Jets play the Patriots on the road Sunday and three of the following four games against the Chargers, the upstart Buffalo Bills and the Patriots again.

In other words, opportunity will be knocking all around the AFC while the Ravens sit back and recharge their batteries. At the very least, they'll be gaining a game in the conference standings on either the Jets or Patriots.

Of course, nobody should be thinking about playoff tiebreakers four weeks into the season, not in the same division as a Steelers team that — banged up or not — is always going to be around at the end. But Ravens fans have every right to be very pleased with the way the Ravens have positioned themselves at the quarter pole.

"It's exciting," Harbaugh said. "We told the guys [Monday], and I really believe this, we are only going to get better, but getting better is a choice. We will decide if we're going to get better or not based on how hard we decide to work, if we do the things we need to do to stay strong and overcome adversity and all that stuff. … There are 1,000 things that go into it, but I am excited, and I am proud of our guys, yet, hey, we have a long way to go."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal.com.

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