RAVENS GIVE UP DAY OFF; RAY CALLS OUT HILLIS AND TEAMMATES
At this time of the season, Ravens players earn Mondays off with wins on Sundays. "Victory Mondays" are common around the NFL in late November and December.
It was a jubilant locker room after last Sunday's important decision over the Saints. Players high-fiving, fist-bumping and hugs everywhere. In fact, John Harbaugh might have individually embraced three-quarters of the team, along with Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta and a host of assistant coaches and other team executives.
When Harbs called the team to attention for the post-game huddle, you could hear a few players shout: "See you Wednesday!" (Players have every Tuesday off during the season.)
"I hear you. You earned it," Harbaugh said. Then he was reminded that the players had to have the Pro Bowl voting completed by Wednesday.
"Wait a minute, guys," the head coach continued, "we have to vote for the Pro Bowl. Should we come in tomorrow and get that done?" Led by a smiling Derrick Mason, who was standing next to John, the chorus came back: "No way, we're not coming in tomorrow."
"Okay, let's come in early on Wednesday morning and do it then," Harbaugh said.
Ed Reed raised his arm: "Coach, we have to lift [weights] one of the next two days, right? Why don't we just come in tomorrow and vote and lift?"
Mason shouted: "Morgan Freeman doesn't speak for all of us." That brought a big laugh, including from Reed, who had combed his hair out, much like the famous actor Freeman has done for some roles.
Harbs looked around the room: "What do we want to do?" The surprising response came back from almost everyone (including Mason): "Let's come in tomorrow and get it done."
I was stunned. The players, at the start of a busy Christmas week, were giving up a day off, basically saying that they didn't want the Pro Bowl voting getting into the way of preparation for Sunday's game at Cleveland, which, for the players, started with the first meetings on Wednesday morning.
About 40 minutes later, I caught up with Harbs as he dressed to meet his waiting family. "Coach, I'm amazed the players volunteered to come in tomorrow. What a buy-in to what we're doing!" I said. He smiled and commented, "I'm a little surprised, too. It does say a lot about what they want to accomplish as a team. We have a lot of good guys. They're already thinking about winning the next game. I'm really proud of them, really proud."
We'll be ready to play in Cleveland this Sunday.
RAY LEWIS' STARTLING COMMENTS
And, if the game against the Browns wasn't going to be intense already – division rival, Browns seeking revenge, Browns trying to spoil our playoff party, we can clinch a spot in the NFL postseason with a victory – Ray Lewis added some holiday spice.
"Even a blind cat will find a meal once in awhile." My head popped up from looking at my notes, and I tried to catch Ray's eyes after he said this to about 30 reporters on Wednesday. (He was responding to a question about the Browns' Peyton Hillis, who rushed for 144 yards – and added another 36 receiving yards – against us on Sept. 26.) I wanted Ray to see my look of "What are you doing? They already have lots of incentives to beat us." Lewis ignored me. He even added that his son could have run through "some of the holes we gave them last time."
So yesterday (Thursday) morning I looked for Ray to ask: "What was up with your interview?" He smiled. "You surprised me yesterday with the stuff you said about Hillis," I said. "That's not your usual style."
Lewis got serious: "It looks like he's a hard worker. He plays with passion, and I like that. And, he seems to have a professional approach to the game. But, he's not going to hit those big plays he made against us the last time. We had some guys who gave him the back door a couple of times. We watched the tape again yesterday. What did he have? Two runs of 50 and 30 yards?"
Actually, the big Browns' bruiser had long runs of 48 and 25 yards against our defense. "We didn't know him then, and we're not making those mistakes again. Our coaches told us that the Browns will try to be more physical than we are, and they'll run against us because they were successful last time. Bring it. They want physical. They want to run against us. You know we'll be there," Lewis stated.
Ray Rice, who had walked into the conversation, offered: "Ray didn't say anything nice to me until after my first training camp. Ray will say something nice about Hillis after the season."
With that, Big Ray got up to attend the day's first meeting and left me with this: "Respect is not given. It has to be earned over time. Look, I want Hillis to know we'll be ready, but I also want my teammates to know that this is the Browns' Super Bowl, and we can't let them do what they did to us last time."
Got it. Sure, Ray was delivering a message to Hillis and the Browns. But, for sure, he was also calling out to his defensive teammates to make certain that whatever yards Hillis earns Sunday, they will have to be hard-earned.
I'll say this for Ray Lewis. He has believed since the first day he became a Raven that no player can run with consistent success against us – not Jerome Bettis, not Eddie George, not Rashard Mendenhall, not Fred Taylor – and he has never backed down from the challenge of those who want to prove otherwise.
A lot of you have seen footage of Joe Flacco yelling at referee Walt Anderson during last Sunday's game against the Saints. Joe felt that a New Orleans defender had gotten away with a cheap shot against him that should have drawn a personal foul penalty.
There might be something to Joe's anger. People here have done a study on hits to Joe when no penalty is called as compared to similar hits to the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees when flags were thrown. We've shared some of this footage with the NFL office.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Players will have Christmas morning off before reporting for meetings and a brief practice at midday. Then it's off to Cleveland. Let's beat those Browns.
Talk with you next week.