OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens are healthy and rested.
They hope such qualities serve them better in the playoffs than the momentum they would have gotten from winning the regular-season finale.
Baltimore’s 23-17 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday had the feel of a preseason contest. The Ravens (10-6) already had clinched their second straight AFC North title, so coach John Harbaugh rested several injured players for the entire game and removed most of his starters before the end of the first half.
The defeat dropped Baltimore’s record in December to 1-4. Now it’s time to find out whether the Ravens can suddenly get hot when it matters most, beginning with Sunday’s home playoff game with Chuck Pagano’s Indianapolis Colts (11-5).
“It’s a whole new season,” Harbaugh said Monday. “It all starts fresh. It’s the playoffs. We’re all 0-0 at this point.”
The Ravens are the only team in the NFL to reach the postseason in each of the past five years. They won at least one playoff game in the previous four trips, but on each occasion they were coming off a win to finish the regular season.
Not this time.
“Whatever team plays the best in the playoffs is going to win it,” Harbaugh said. “So if you want to call it getting hot, it’s pretty important. Starting this week, whoever plays the best will be the champion.”
That would call for a complete turnaround from December, when the Ravens lost to Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver and Cincinnati. The lone victory during the month was a 33-14 beating of the New York Giants on Dec. 23 that provided Baltimore with its second straight division title.
“We are going to hit our stride going into the playoffs,” said running back Ray Rice, who watched the final three quarters of the Cincinnati game from the sideline.
“It doesn’t worry us because this is the playoffs and it’s different,” safety Ed Reed said.
With little to play for in Cincinnati except the remote possibility of gaining the No. 3 seed, Harbaugh placed injured veterans Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Bernard Pollard and Marshal Yanda on the inactive list. He pulled most of his starters, including Rice, quarterback Joe Flacco and Reed, early in the first half.
All should be available against the Colts. The Ravens also hope to have middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who’s been out since Oct. 14 with a torn right triceps. That, Harbaugh said, would be a “game-time decision.”
Because the Ravens used so many backups against the Bengals, the defeat was far easier to swallow.
“Yeah, it’s a loss, but this game is totally different than any of the other games,” cornerback Corey Graham said. “This is more of a get healthy, get ready for the playoffs thing. Some losses mean more than others, and this one here don’t mean a lot.”
Harbaugh simply thought the health of his team was more important than charging into the postseason with a two-game winning streak.
“We took all that into consideration. We weighed it all out,” he said. “We felt like we could win the game with guys we had, and we almost pulled it off.”
The Ravens endured a hectic four months leading up to the postseason. Despite losing Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb (knee) in mid-October, Baltimore used a 9-2 start to take control of the division. That gave the Ravens enough of a cushion to limp to the finish as the No. 4 seed in the AFC.
“We battled adversity, we battled injury and we battled everything else you can imagine for a football team,” Rice said. “We are a battle-tested football team. I’m not really concerned about the four (December) losses. I’m more concerned about this team getting healthy.”
Harbaugh likes where the Ravens are as the playoffs begin.
“I’m very excited about our team right now. I like us a lot,” he said. “I like the fact that we’ve overcome a lot of adversity, both personal and team. I like the fact that our guys have stuck together through a lot of that. I think that’s what makes a team what it is and I’m looking forward to seeing who we are for the next one game through however many games we’re able to play. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
The opening opponent is intriguing. No one in Baltimore has forgotten that the Colts left for Indianapolis in 1984, or that Pagano was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator in 2011 and is returning from three rounds of chemotherapy.
The Ravens won’t let the off-the-field stuff deflect their focus from revving up some postseason momentum.
“I think we’re very ready,” tight end Ed Dickson said. “We had a chance to get guys healthy (Sunday). We’re going to be firing on all cylinders. If we put it all together, the sky is the limit for this team. It’s a one-game season right now.”
Meanwhile, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta says he won’t pursue GM openings with other teams.
“I love being a part of the Ravens and plan to stay here and help them win championships,” he said in a statement. “I have no intentions of leaving this team.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)