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Reed's perseverance serves as inspiration for Ravens

There's a lot you can question about the Baltimore Ravens' quest to reach a second Super Bowl in eight years.

You can point to the long, hard road they are traveling as a No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs. You can point to the inexperience of their first-year coach, John Harbaugh, and their rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco.

And then there are the injuries. Cornerback Samari Rolle is doubtful with a sore thigh. A laundry list of players labeled as questionable includes linebackers Terrell Suggs (shoulder) and Jarret Johnson (calf), defensive tackle Justin Bannan (foot), running back Le'Ron McClain (ankle), tight end Todd Heap (back), and receivers Derrick Mason (shoulder) and Mark Clayton (thigh).

What you can't question about the Ravens, though, is the fact they have arguably the most talented player in the NFL: Free safety Ed Reed.

Reed is more than the catalyst of the league's second-ranked defense. He's the heart and soul of their postseason run, both as a player and as a leader.

He might not be quite as demonstrative as linebacker Ray Lewis, who has his own dance (that includes ripping up pieces of the playing turf and tossing it into the air) as he emerges from the tunnel before each game and then works his teammates into an emotional frenzy before they take the field. But through his play and deep understanding of what it takes to win, the seventh-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowler is someone the other Ravens players admire, respect and follow.

The rest of us can talk about the divisional-round victory at Tennessee leaving enough of Baltimore's roster bumped and bruised that the Ravens are at a disadvantage against the seemingly healthier Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.

Not Reed.

"We've been having guys hurt since training camp," he said during a conference call this week with national media. "We've been going through a lot as a team since training camp and throughout the whole season. Guys getting banged up against Tennessee last week is nothing new to us, playing hurt is nothing new to us, and playing through things -- just preserving through life itself, just fighting along -- is something that's instilled in all of us."

Nowhere is it more deeply instilled than in Reed.

He, too, is on the Ravens' injury list (probable, knee). Yet Reed doesn't give it a second thought.

Given what he has overcome so far -- and how amazingly well he has overcome it -- it's understandable. In the preseason, Reed was bothered so much by shoulder and neck problems, that his future as an NFL player seemed in doubt.

Yet, he pushed on and never missed a start. Not only that, but he also led the league with nine interceptions, eight of which came through the final six weeks of the schedule. During that stretch, he had a record 107-yard return for a touchdown against Philadelphia and a 22-yard fumble return for a score against Washington.

Reed became a strong candidate for league Defensive Player of the Year honors, but wound up finishing in third behind Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison and Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. If Reed was upset, he didn't show it. Some of his teammates did, however. Cornerback Fabian Washington told reporters: "We know who the NFL Defensive Player of the Year is, (and) it's got to be Ed Reed. The dude is amazing. He can cover anything in the planet. If it's in the air, he's going to get it. He can play the ball from sideline to sideline. If there's a better player out there, I need to see him."

Reed proceeded to lend additional credence to Washington's observation by making two more interceptions in Baltimore's wild-card victory at Miami, including an over-the-shoulder catch that began a winding, 64-yard return for a touchdown.

So, no, playing through injuries -- and playing well through them -- is nothing new to Reed.

"Nothing's changed with this defense," he said. "If you go back and look at the past couple of years, nothing really has changed. Guys go down, guys are in, guys step up. It's the same mold."

That goes for the challenge of trying to snap a two-game losing streak to the Steelers and winning a third playoff game on the road -- in the ultra-hostile environment of Heinz Field.

"For a long time now, we've been saying it doesn't matter who we play, where we play them," Reed said. "And at this point, it really doesn't matter."

Reed also does his best to downplay his performance through the latter part of the season and in the playoffs because "it's still going."

Teammates and opponents certainly don't downplay what Reed does on the field. After the wild-card game, Suggs described him as a "freak." Before the divisional-round contest, Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins paid Reed the highest compliment that a defensive player can receive when he said: "He is a guy who you always have to know where he is."

Reed is all about business, which helps explain why he goes about the business of playing safety better than most current or former players at the position. He is known throughout the team for being an avid watcher of opponents' videotape, above and beyond what he and his teammates watch during meetings with coaches. He's so astute at picking up nuances that sometimes escape the view of other Raven players who also watch a great deal of tape and then learn something from Reed that they missed.

That's the type of mentality that allowed Reed and the rest of the Ravens' incumbent players to have a smooth transition from former coach Brian Billick to Harbaugh.

To make it work, there had to be an immediate spirit of cooperation.

"This is a corporate business; you have to learn to work together," Reed said. "When coach came into training camp, he explained that. We understood that as men. We had a bunch of veterans on this team that understood that (and explained) it to the young guys."

The other message that has guided Reed and the Ravens since training camp requires no explanation: Persevere.

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