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Ravens faced obstacles in return to AFC title game

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Ravens faced obstacles in return to AFC title game

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) The Baltimore Ravens overcame an assortment of injuries and obstacles to return to the AFC championship game, one victory from reaching the Super Bowl.

Their usually stout defense was besieged by a season-long string of setbacks.

Thirteen players with starting experience were sidelined during the regular season, including linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, cornerback Lardarius Webb and tackle Haloti Ngata. Two dozen different defensive players received at least one start, but only two - safety Ed Reed and cornerback Cary Williams - started all 16 games.

The offense had its issues, too.

Frustrated with the unit's struggle during a December swoon, coach John Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and handed the reins to quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell.

Baltimore secured its second straight AFC North crown despite losing four of its last five regular-season games. Unlike last year, however, there was no first-round bye. Yet the Ravens defeated the Indianapolis Colts in the playoff opener before eliminating the top-seeded Denver Broncos last weekend to earn another shot at New England in the AFC title game Sunday night.

``I don't think a lot of people expected us to be here,'' Ngata said. ``For us to overcome a lot of things, everything that has happened with our team, I think we all just understand that we're a family here, and we can lean on each other and depend on each other.''

Not long after their season-ending 23-20 loss to New England last January, the Ravens began to realize this team would be radically different. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano accepted the job as head coach at Indianapolis, and three key starters left as free agents: linebacker Jarret Johnson, guard Ben Grubbs and defensive end Cory Redding.

Soon after that, the troubling offseason continued with another devastating blow: Suggs, the 2012 AP Defensive Player of the Year, tore his right Achilles tendon in early May.

In spite of it all, the Ravens won five of their first six games. But in a 31-29 victory over Dallas on Oct. 14, Lewis tore his right triceps and Webb ripped the ACL in his left knee and was placed on injured reserve.

Suggs made his season debut the following week, but the five-time Pro Bowl star missed two games in December with a torn right biceps and is still seeking to regain the form he displayed last year. Guard Marshal Yanda also sat out two games with a sprained ankle and safety Bernard Pollard was sidelined for three straight weeks with a chest injury.

And still, the Ravens pressed on.

``I think that we are battled-tested,'' Yanda said. ``We went through a lot of injuries. We went through line shuffles. We went through losses. We went through losing streaks, and every team goes through that during the year. It's all about just battling through it and trying to get hot and trying to play your best football at the end of the year. I think we're doing that. We are just going to have to do a lot of things to continue to do that come'' Sunday.

Judging by their performance in last Saturday's 38-35 double-overtime win over the Broncos, the Ravens appear to be hitting peak form. Lewis returned from a 10-game absence to lead the team in tackles against both the Colts and Broncos, and his teammates appear to have drawn strength from the ups and downs they've encountered over the past five months.

``A lot of teams go through a lot of things,'' Harbaugh said. ``There are challenges that get you to the point that you are at as a football team and make you who you are - even as a person. And, our guys have handled all those things extremely well. Individually and collectively, a lot of our guys have come out of it stronger and better men, and we're a stronger and better team.''

Tight end Dennis Pitta broke his right hand in practice in late July and received a concussion in November. But Pitta hasn't missed a game yet, and now he and the Ravens are eager to keep the season going with a win in New England.

``It's not easy being back in this position,'' Pitta said. ``We've had a lot of highs and lows this season. We had a three-game losing streak when nobody thought we would win another game. We've battled and we've been through a lot, and I think it's better prepared us for this point now. We're excited to be in this game and to be able to get a rematch with these guys.''

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Ravens preparing for ‘raucous’ atmosphere in Kansas City on Sunday

Ravens preparing for ‘raucous’ atmosphere in Kansas City on Sunday

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens offense will be able to see Lamar Jackson just fine this Sunday. They just won’t be able to hear him. 

As the Ravens head to Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest venues in the NFL, they'll have to adjust some of their offensive calls when facing the Chiefs defense — and their crowd.

“It gets loud there, for sure, so we’ve been working on various cadences starting, really, in the spring,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “And there’ll be a lot of visual communication going on. We’ll mix in some cadence, but we’ll probably use a lot of what we call ‘silent count’. There are a lot of various cadences we have in the silent count, and we’ve been working them for a while.”

The Ravens have some experience playing in front of a crowd commonly known as among the most hostile in sports. They played in Kansas City last season in Week 14, falling in overtime.

“We know it’s going to be louder, so we’re just going to have to bring our volume up,” center Matt Skura said. “Just making sure everyone is on the same page. Whether that’s in the huddle, leaving the huddle or up at the line of scrimmage, if anyone has any doubt, just ask. As long as we’re on the same page, it’ll be good. Nothing really too much changes."

It won’t be the first time the Ravens venture into a hostile crowd this season, as they’ll head to Seattle on Oct. 20 this season. 

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right guard Marshal Yanda both stressed the importance of being on the same page as an offensive unit, with communication expected to be limited. 

The important part, however, is making sure nothing changes too much offensively. 

“K.C. is a big stadium, and every seat will be full,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They’re raucous. They do a great job with that, and our offense, especially, is going to have to be on-point with that. So, yes, that’s going to be important. We’re working hard on it; we have been. I really feel like we’ll be good with it, but [there is] nothing like the real thing.”

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A view from the other side: A Q&A with a Kansas City Chiefs columnist

A view from the other side: A Q&A with a Kansas City Chiefs columnist

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ahead of the Ravens and Chiefs game this Sunday, NBC Sports Washington reached out to Sam Mellinger, a columnist for The Kansas City Star. 

Here’s what Mellinger and the Chiefs are saying about this week’s game between two 2-0 opponents in a rematch of last year’s thrilling 27-24 overtime finish. 

Note: Mellinger’s answers were over email.

Q: The Ravens have mentioned that last year's wild overtime finish has been somewhat of a learning experience for them. Have the Chiefs said the same? Or is there no carryover from year-to-year?

A: That game has been talked about a lot here. It's still Patrick Mahomes' only game under 26 points in regulation. There are a dozen different moments that had to go the Chiefs' way to win that one, even beyond the 4th and 9 that everyone talks about. The carryover is probably less of a thing for the defense than offense, just because that side of the ball has been almost completely overhauled.

Q: Lamar Jackson has been one of the league's most impressive quarterbacks so far this season — what have the Chiefs and their coaches said about his progression from year 1 to year 2? 

A: The Chiefs are always complimentary of their opponents. They could play the Dolphins this year and Andy Reid would talk about being excited for the challenge of playing a good football team with good players and good coaches. That's just how they go. But we all have b.s. detecters, right? And the talk is more sincere this week. Jackson and the Ravens do a lot of things well that match up against what the Chiefs don't do well. Jackson is a problem for everyone, but particularly for the Chiefs. Their improved speed at linebacker and rookie safety Juan Thornhill will be especially tested this weekend.

Q: There's been a lot made of Mahomes' progression in his second year, has that been discussed by the Chiefs in what to expect from Jackson this week?

A: The connection with Mahomes hasn't come up specifically, unless I've missed something, but yeah they've talked about Jackson looking more comfortable and advanced this year than last, which I believe was just his fourth start.

Q: In terms of defending the run and pass from Jackson, what have the Chiefs stressed as difficulties in defending both? What are the keys to that? 

A: They don't reveal a lot beyond cliches, but basically the Chiefs are going to need to set the edge, stay disciplined, and perhaps even put one of their faster linebackers or even a safety as a spy against Jackson. The Chiefs have been pretty terrible defending the run for some time now. The Ravens could have a lot of success there.

Q: The Ravens have one of the better secondaries in the NFL, how do you see the matchup between all of the Chiefs weapons and the Ravens secondary playing out?

A: The Chiefs have enough weapons and the right quarterback and a scheme that once allowed Alex Smith to lead the league in passer rating, so the stock answer is that this offense is too much of a problem for any secondary. But the answer this week is a little different, I think, because the Chiefs won't have Tyreek Hill and the Ravens signed Earl Thomas. That matters. A lot. Thomas is a Hall of Famer still relatively close to his peak, and his ability as a sort of center fielder — both his range and mind — could cut the top off some of what the Chiefs want to do. The combination of Mahomes' arm strength and Hill's speed often stretches defenses past the point of recognition, but that part of the game will be in closer balance now.

Q: What's a particular matchup (position or individual) that you're interested in seeing on Sunday?

A: I think we all tend to think of these things through the lens of the team we follow the closest, but the two that come first to mind are Cam Irving and Juan Thornhill. Irving will start at left tackle for the injured Eric Fisher. Irving is a representative lineman — they're not pushing a practice squad guy out there — but he got trucked in the run game last week against the Raiders. The Ravens are tough and physical and disguise their blitzes really well, so that could be a particular problem for a Chiefs team without their starting left tackle and (likely) at least one of their two top running backs.

Thornhill is sort of the Chiefs' version of what we were just talking about with Earl Thomas. Thornhill is obviously not in Thomas' class, I'm not saying that, but he's a similar profile: center fielder type of a safety with length and athleticism. Hollywood Brown with more comfort from Jackson in the pass game will stretch the field more than the last time these teams played. The Chiefs' corners are inconsistent, and can be had. Thornhill will be relied upon.

Q: If you had to put a prediction on the game, what would that be?

A: I did picks before the season, and this is one of three games I had the Chiefs losing. I'll stick with that. The Ravens look like the best team the Chiefs will play this season other than the Patriots, and like I mentioned before, a lot of the things they do well are particular problems for the Chiefs. I know the line is close to a touchdown, and I guess I can understand why, but I'm expecting this to be a really hard game for the Chiefs. The Ravens beat Mahomes up last year more than anyone else has been able to, and now the Chiefs are down a lineman and short on running backs for pass protection. No outcome would be surprising other than a blowout either way, but I think the Ravens can get this one.