OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens had better rest up during their open date.
What's awaiting them afterward is pretty daunting.
"This is a beneficial time," Harbaugh said at the beginning of the week. "We're going to try and make the most of it and then be ready to roll for what's going to be the toughest schedule in football for the next five weeks."
Harbaugh has coached the Ravens to the top spot in the AFC. Their schedule included three divisional road games in the first five weeks, then a trip to London. When they return from their week off, they host the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 10. Then the gauntlet begins — three straight games against first-place teams. Baltimore travels to play Jacksonville and San Francisco before hosting Miami.
It was at roughly this point that the past two Ravens seasons were irreparably damaged by injuries to star quarterback Lamar Jackson. He missed the final four games of the 2021 campaign, and Baltimore failed to make the playoffs. Last season he missed the final six games, including a first-round loss at Cincinnati in the postseason.
An injury can happen at any moment, but this season Jackson has played in every game, and it's other AFC North teams like Cleveland and Cincinnati that have lost their quarterbacks. So it's understandable that the Ravens (9-3) sense a big opportunity.
"Let's take a breath, step away, regroup," Jackson said after Sunday night's win over the Los Angeles Chargers. "There's still a lot of the season left."
Harbaugh said he was giving players the week off, figuring they would gain more by resting than by practicing. Only two teams — Arizona and Washington next week — have a later open date than the Ravens.
Baltimore faced some questions when it returned from its Week 6 victory in London over Tennessee about whether the Ravens wished they had a week off then after such a long trip. Harbaugh said at the time he was happy to have the team's open date later in the season instead, and it's fair to say it worked out.
Immediately after returning from London, the Ravens trounced Detroit 38-6. And now they can enjoy the week off at a time when many players need to recharge. They know that when they return to the field, they will still at least share the top spot in the conference.
"Through the course of this season with all the travel and all the tough games we've had. I think it's pretty remarkable," Harbaugh said. "I'm really proud of the guys."
Baltimore can expect to be in the spotlight down the stretch. The Ravens already are coming off two straight prime-time games. They play the Rams in the afternoon, and then the matchups with the Jaguars and 49ers are scheduled for Sunday night and Monday night, respectively. The game against Miami figures to be highly anticipated as well.
Baltimore wraps up the regular season at home against Pittsburgh (7-4), a team that's already beaten the Ravens and may have the best chance to catch them in the division. FanDuel Sportsbook lists Kansas City (8-3) as the clear favorite to be the AFC's top seed, even though the Ravens have a half-game lead at the moment.
It's an enviable spot for a Baltimore team that spent much of last offseason facing an uncertain future amid Jackson's contract negotiations. The Ravens were able to keep their franchise QB, who is posting a career high in completion percentage (68.3) under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
Jackson and Baltimore have shown they can produce against good opponents — the Ravens scored at least 31 points in five straight games before last weekend. Then they managed only 20 against the Chargers, and that may not be good enough against some of the teams up ahead on the schedule.
"At times, I like a lot of things that we're doing, and there are times we just need to be better at it. We need to call it better, and we need to execute better," Monken said. "That's really what it is. There is no magic to it. We have good enough players, we have good enough coaches. Now, we've just got to consistently do it."
(© Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
for more features.