Sunday will mark the 12th time John Harbaugh has led the Baltimore Ravens into a showdown against the hated Pittsburgh Steelers. It'd be hard to argue that this 2012 group is the most talented of the bunch. Or even close to it.
These Ravens are too short-handed, thanks to a cyclone of injuries that has swept through the roster, to earn that distinction.
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But they're also 9-2, good enough for the third-best record in football. They have a chance to clinch the AFC North this week and, with only three-quarters of the season left, the full admiration of their coach. Harbaugh knows how much the Ravens have endured and willed out of their own ability. When training camp opened four months ago, we sat in his office and he told me how he finally had the program where he wanted it. This season, as it turns out, has been a testament to that.
"You love every team you coach," he said over the phone Monday night. "But this team is different. I love the way they love each other, the way they treat each other. They compete, they have trust and faith in one another, and they're not afraid to get after one another. I love being around them. I can't wait to be in the meeting room, to laugh and talk ball with them. It's a great group, with great coaches and great leadership. It's the best staff I've been around, and the best leadership I've seen."
Those words are notable, given the news that came out this week, courtesy of a story by Yahoo! Sports columnist Mike Silver, about a time in late October when player frustration reportedly bubbled over at an emotionally charged team meeting.
As I spoke with Harbaugh on Monday, he asked if I knew about the biblical story of Nehemiah. I told him it'd been a while since I was in CCD, but that I'd look it up. And I did. In a nutshell, the story goes that Jerusalem, in 500 B.C., had its walls broken down, and Nehemiah had been charged by the King to travel there and rebuild them. Against the opposition of Judah's enemies, coming from all sides, he pulled it off in 52 days.
The story works for what Harbaugh and his staff have done in program-building since 2008, when they found a Baltimore club loaded with talent but lacking in discipline. It also works for this season in a vacuum, where the incident on Halloween -- with players upset that the coach was keeping his foot on the accelerator after a very tough month -- could've thrown the season into peril, but wound up only steeling the group's resolve.
Harbaugh refers to the Nehemiah story as a "metaphor for what we are doing."
"It's what they've all been through -- we don't have a lot of selfish agendas here," Harbaugh said. "We have guys who have opinions, guys who have tempers, guys that are funny. The mix of that, those are the things we encourage here. We want guys to be themselves. We want them to say what they think. And we got to the point where they're not afraid to do that. It's a good group."
The past two weeks might be the best example of that.
First, they went into Pittsburgh and outlasted their archrivals. Then, it was back to Baltimore, with the knowledge that a) they had a cross-country trip to San Diego to play a desperate Chargers team ahead and b) the rematch with the Steelers was waiting on the other side of it.
Fourth-and-29 was a pretty good indicator of how the banged-up and worn-out, yet prideful Ravens handled that classic trap situation. It is really just how they've handled the rest of the season.
"That intangible, I don't know how you measure that, it's hard to quantify it, but I know it when I see it," Harbaugh explained. "These guys love one another and they love football, and that's a real good combination to have. It's the shared experiences we've had, the success, the adversity. Everything you go through, it can divide a group. Instead, it's pushed us together."
With that, Harbaugh goes back again to what he calls "crazy leadership" in one breath and "great senior leadership" in the next. And he continues that "the best part is those seniors are training the juniors and the sophomores and the freshman. How they lift, how they practice, how they prepare -- they're showing them the way."
Seven months ago, these Ravens sustained the first body blow in a year that's left them battered, with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs rupturing his Achilles tendon. Inexplicably, less than six months later, Suggs was back out there, eager to fill the void left by the man he calls the defense's "general": Ray Lewis.
So I asked Suggs if he felt like he needed to be Lewis in Lewis' absence. Suggs quickly responded that, "When he feels like it's time for the torch to be passed, he'll pass it. But until then, it's his. When Ray and Ed (Reed) decide to hang it up, it's mine."
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And that seems to encapsulate what Harbaugh is saying, and what he wants: a program that's self-perpetuating, full of players who buy in. There are going to bumps, always. It's the way the group fights through things like the Halloween turning point that shows where that program stands.
At 9-2, this one happens to be in a pretty good place. Things won't get easier from here, not with the Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals still on the schedule, the team's secondary still depleted and the offense still trying to find its way. But as far as what Harbaugh believes in -- maybe best described in his borrowing of Bo Schembechler's "The Team, The Team, The Team" battle cry -- there's very little he sees his players lacking.
"You try to put the best team you can out there, help guys be the best they can be," Harbaugh said. "We know we had good players go down, so try to find a way to get better with guys that are out there. I hope we can keep doing that. The thing about it is, you're talking about guys that have their own dreams now in those spots, and you're giving them opportunity. And they're looking at their dreams and the opportunity to fulfill them. Yeah, we don't wanna lose guys like Ray. But it's about being a team."
Harbaugh has one, something that's been proven out over the past few months. And beat up as they may be, he believes that will give the Ravens a heck of a chance as fall turns to winter.
Players on the spot
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Green Bay Packers LT Marshall Newhouse: Green Bay's offensive line has popped up as a weakness at times over the past few years, and last week was one of those times. And their failures last week make this week an even bigger game, with Minnesota Vikings having a shot to pull even in the standings and assure at least a split of the season series with their rivals. It starts with Newhouse handling Jared Allen.
Pittsburgh Steelers RB Jonathan Dwyer: Whether Ben Roethlisberger plays Sunday or not, the run game is going to be important against a defense that allowed a total of 71 points in its past five games, but is still just 26th against the run. One AFC scout said Dwyer's a "poor man's (Jerome) Bettis, but probably better as a complement." Being more than that in Baltimore sure would help Pittsburgh manage its quarterback situation.
Indianapolis Colts OLB Dwight Freeney: Maybe Freeney just isn't a fit for Chuck Pagano's 3-4. Maybe he's just getting older. But as one scout put it, "He said he wasn't pumped about playing in the 3-4, and it looks like it in his play." This week, the Colts have to deal with Calvin Johnson with a depleted secondary. Pass rush is a way to mitigate that kind of matchup issue. So this would be a good week for Freeney to come alive.
Chicago Bears RT Jonathan Scott: Gabe Carimi's replacement gets a huge test this week, with explosive rookie Bruce Irvin coming to Soldier Field. Last week, the Bears were able to keep Allen and Co. off Jay Cutler. The Seahawks present a different challenge with the versatility of their pass rush to come from different angles, and their ability to cover Chicago's size downfield with their bigger corners.
Coaches in the spotlight
Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains:As we wrote Tuesday, Tennessee will be looking for creativity and better play-calling with this in-season switch. But in the end, Loggains will be judged on the development of Jake Locker, who's been in and out of the lineup all year long, and has been erratic when healthy. It'll be Loggains' directive to try to create rhythm for Locker, starting this week.
New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell: With opportunities on the horizon, this is one of those weeks when Fewell can make his mark. He's the first defensive coach to get a second shot at Robert Griffin III. The first time around, Washington's rookie dynamo was 20-of-28 for 258 yards and two scores and rushed for 89 yards. Marked improvement in December would help Fewell's prospects in January.
Something to spot on Thursday night
An Atlanta Falcons breakthrough. It seems like every time these teams play, Atlanta's inability to break the back of its rival comes up. You know the history. The Saints taking pictures at the Georgia Dome 50. The Steve Gleason statue logo flap. No love lost here. But when it's most heated, the Saints usually win, taking all four December meetings in the Brees Era. So this is not just another game for Atlanta.
The Miami Dolphins' running game.The New England game presents a potential early signature win for Joe Philbin. But young quarterback Ryan Tannehill is going to need help, and that means running the ball like Miami did against Seattle. The Dolphins have been inconsistent on the ground -- six games of 86 or fewer rushing yards; three of 180 or more. This will have to be an "up" day if the hosts are gonna have a chance.