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Ravens Poised For Important Five-Game Stretch

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — As a reward for playing twice in five days, the Baltimore Ravens got the weekend off to collect their thoughts, get healthy and ready themselves for an important stretch run to end the regular season.

The Ravens (8-3) beat Cincinnati last Sunday and San Francisco on Thanksgiving to ascend to the top of the AFC North. Their next four games are all against teams with losing records, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Baltimore’s three losses this season followed significant victories and occurred on the road against sub-.500 teams. The Ravens are determined to break the trend on Sunday at Cleveland (4-7).

“It doesn’t matter how many wins and losses they have,” linebacker Jarret Johnson said Monday. “They always play good against us. It’s going to be a dogfight, so we better bring it.”

Coach John Harbaugh believes the problem in Baltimore’s three defeats wasn’t so much mental as it was physical.

“What we didn’t do is, we didn’t play very well,” he said. “We certainly acknowledge that those three losses coming off big wins were not good performances. They’re there. They’re on the record. Now we face a similar challenge this week, but a tougher challenge, because now we’ve got to go play a team in our division.”

The AFC North is jammed at the top. The Ravens are tied with Pittsburgh for the lead and the Bengals are one game back.

“We expect it to be a tight race. We just want to uphold our end of the bargain,” Harbaugh said. “What you have to concern yourself with is winning. That’s the bottom line for us. We can’t be concerned what the others teams do. We have to be concerned with what we do.”

The Ravens couldn’t have asked for a better scenario entering the final five weeks of the season. Before facing Cleveland twice, winless Indianapolis and struggling San Diego, they received a lengthy break following a rugged 16-6 conquest of the 49ers.

“That was big to have,” defensive tackle Terrence Cody said. “We have a lot of guys banged up — nicks and bruises — and it was big to have (time off) at this point in the season.”

It’s been more than two weeks since middle linebacker Ray Lewis (sore right toe) has played a game, and no one on the team needed the break more than Baltimore’s 36-year-old defensive leader.

“The rest part is big,” Harbaugh said. “I’m hopeful. I think he’s got a real good chance” to play Sunday. “We’ll just have to see how it goes.”

Fortunately for the Ravens, they have flourished without Lewis. The defense had its ups and downs in a 31-24 win over the Bengals, but Baltimore had nine sacks and yielded only two field goals in turning back San Francisco.

“They were two huge wins in five days. You can’t say enough about it,” Johnson said. “It’s a tough thing to do. We played a really good game against the Niners, but we’re moving on. We need to get win No.9 and we’re going to try and get it this week.”

Much will be written and said in the next few days about Baltimore’s tendency to stumble against sub-par teams. As far as defensive tackle Cory Redding is concerned, the toughest team the Ravens will face down the stretch will be … the Ravens.

“It’s not the Indianapolis Colts, it’s not the Cincinnati Bengals or anybody else that’s left on our schedule. It’s us,” Redding said. “As long as we continue to beat the negatives, beat the things that can hinder us from getting a win and overcome the mistakes we make on Sunday, we’ll get those victories. But we’ve got to beat the things that can hurt us, and that’s us. As long as we make our plays and not make any careless mistakes, then we’ll be great.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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