After a grueling stretch of five road contests in six weeks, the Ravens are thankful to return to the friendly confines of M&T Bank Stadium this weekend. **
And following a slate of three consecutive games away from home, it had been a long time since the team had been in Baltimore. In addition to playing in front of a raucous pro-Ravens crowd that awaits the Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday, many are just happy to return to a familiar routine.
"When you've got five out of six on the road, it's just long," said linebacker Ray Lewis. "You get through it. You fight, you fight, you fight. You go from plane to plane, this and that. But it just feels good to not have to go get on a plane this week and get to stay at my home.
"I think the guys kind of feel it, too. Not just in here, but the city is kind of feeling it, you know? We've been away from Baltimore for almost over a month now, so just to be back playing at home… You never want to go through that rough of a schedule, to have to do that. But I think to come out the way we did, I don't think you can ask for anything else."
The Ravens fared well during that long road stint, going 3-2 with convincing wins coming in Cleveland, Miami and Houston.
Mentally, it was a challenge for some. At the beginning of the season, nobody expected Hurricane Ike to ravage southern Texas and force the NFL to reschedule Baltimore's matchup with the Texans to the Ravens' original bye weekend Nov. 9, in-between trips to Cleveland and New York.
The glut of road contests seemed a daunting task on paper, but now that they embark on the final six weeks of the season, four home games look very appealing.
"I think at the beginning of the season we looked at it, and you put your head down a little bit and said, 'Man, we're taking this long road stretch,'" wideout Derrick Mason said. "Especially after we couldn't play early at Houston, and you look at it and say, 'Man, we're away four out of the five games, five out of six games we're away.'"
"But, then as you start to really pull it back, and you see come the end of November, late December, you're at home. That's what you want, because we are a very good home team, and what better place to go this last stretch of six games, to have the bulk of them at home?"
Escaping M&T Bank Stadium has been tough in recent years. Dating back to Baltimore's Super Bowl season in 2000, the Ravens are third in the league with a .720 home winning percentage (49-19), including a 3-1 mark this year.
In addition, the Ravens thrive in colder months, as the team boasts a 13-4 record in the month of November since 2000.
Coming back to Charm City one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North crown, Baltimore knows it must defend its own turf to sniff a playoff spot.
"Our goal all along has been to be a November and a December football team," head coach John Harbaugh noted recently. "That's a challenge that's in front of us; that's something we want to accomplish. I think you play well in November and December and on into January when you're a strong football team."
Linebacker Terrell Suggs agreed, noting how a strong cast of veterans has kept the team on course throughout their journeys.
"Character is built, especially, around this time [in] November, December," he stated. "You see what kind of character your team has got. We've got good veterans around here, so we'll try to make a little run at this thing."
Four Starters Don't Practice
Harbaugh is taking a cautious approach to Gaither's injury, which occurred in the Giants game and caused him to get a magnetic resonance imaging exam on his left shoulder this week.
"He's rehabbing and working to get it better, and that's what it's at," Harbaugh said. "You saw today it's in a sling, so we just have to see how it progresses."
Meanwhile, Mason was not wearing a sling on the shoulder he dislocated Nov. 9 in Houston.
He said the injury is sore, but the swelling has gone down.
"You know, older people tend to say when their bones ache it's starting to get cold," he said with a laugh. "Maybe that's the case with me. But it's an injury, and you have to deal with it as such."
The Ravens are aiming for their first regular-season win over the Eagles. Philadelphia owns the series 1-0-1, with a tie coming on a 10-10 overtime contest on Nov. 16, 1997. … Quarterback Joe Flacco is constantly grilled about his calm demeanor, but the rookie doesn't know how to explain it. "It really comes down to how you handle the games that you don't play well in," he said Wednesday. "I think I've been brought up, I guess, to do a good job of that, but I couldn't really tell you." … Fullback Le'Ron McClain owns the team lead with six touchdowns (five rushing and one receiving). It is the most out of any fullback in the league.