Proud Ravens Ready for Break

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One day after the Ravens' Super Bowl hopes fell to the Earth with a 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night, many players remembered what it was like to be grounded.

A final full-team meeting took place Monday at 3:30 p.m., where head coach John Harbaugh urged the Ravens to be proud of what they accomplished during a stellar run to the AFC Championship, but to quickly turn their eyes forward to build on the foundation they established in 2008.

As players dragged black trash bags away from emptied lockers, finally leaving an 11-5 regular season behind them, the heartbreaking and hard-fought defeat in Pittsburgh made it easy to think about the immediate future.

"Last night, I felt kind of bad because of what this team went through," said wideout Derrick Mason. "The adversity we went through, the ups and downs, and still being able to get to the AFC Championship game left us unsatisfied. But this morning, it snowed, I got an opportunity to go outside and play with my children for about an hour. We took some pictures, and that brought it all back home.

"This is just a game, so you have to enjoy your time off and get back to work when it's time."

Mason, who completed his 12th year in the league by leading Baltimore with 80 catches for 1,037 yards and five touchdowns, was just as wistful about Harbaugh's gritty club as he was about spending time with his family.

The Ravens were coming off a disappointing 5-11 campaign in 2007, prompting the end of the Brian Billick era of Ravens football and allowing Harbaugh to claim his first-ever head coaching job.

Joe Flacco rose to the starting quarterback position after Kyle Boller was sidelined due to a shoulder injury and Troy Smith's tonsil infection caused a blood clot in his lung and landed him in the hospital before the season opener.

The Ravens lost their Week 10 bye when Hurricane Ike ravaged the City of Houston, causing the NFL to reschedule it for Sept. 14 and enabling Baltimore to play without a break for 18 consecutive weeks.

Even with those powerful odds against them, the Ravens fought through a litany of injuries and still made the playoffs. Baltimore lost 64 games by starters during the regular season, which outpaced any other postseason contender by 14 contests.

Such circumstances would drown a lesser squad, but the Ravens continually fought until the bitter end, which ultimately came when Steelers safety Troy Polamalu intercepted Flacco in the fourth quarter and returned it 40 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.

"I think the way guys responded was impressive," fullback Lorenzo Neal said. "When you look at this team's expectations, people never thought this team would be in this situation. We surpassed what anyone could write about.

"It came close. A couple of plays on offense, a couple of plays on defense, and we'd be in the Super Bowl. That's what you have to look at."

Despite the media horde that attempted to interview the Ravens trickling through the locker room, it was a subdued scene, almost as if the vapor of their second loss at Heinz Field this season (and third total against the Steelers) remained.

But there it was also a scene of warm embraces and the exchanging of updated contact information.

Two newcomers to the team, free agent signees Frank Walker and Fabian Washington, even traded practice jerseys before leaving the Owings Mills, Md., training facility.

For Washington, seeing his season end early was tough, but the cornerback held his head high as he packed away his purple and black gear.

"We had a strong year," Washington said. "Yes, things could have been better, but at the end of the day, only one team is going to be happy, and that's who wins two weeks from now.

"We're going to fight to the end. There are no ifs, ands, or buts. We're going to play until the last seconds on the clock. Next year, we'll have the chance to do that again."

But before minicamps and Organized Team Activities (OTAs) begin in approximately two months, most Ravens will completely remove themselves from the game.

Whether that means linebacker Bart Scott taking his son to school and playing with his daughter, Washington heading to his home in south Florida, or right guard Marshal Yanda returning to his family farm in Iowa, the immediate offseason is a time for separation.

It is all part of the players' respective routines.

"I'm going to forget about football as much as I can for a bit," wideout Mark Clayton said with a weary smile. "I like to go to an island and just be. Eventually, I'll get back in it, but for right now, it's time to rest and get your mind off things."

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