The Baltimore Ravens realized nothing was going to come easy this season when they lost their opener at home against division rival Cincinnati.
One day later, things really got ugly.
On Sept. 8, a video surfaced showing Baltimore running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in an elevator. The Ravens promptly released Rice, then scrambled into recovery mode while the national media swarmed the team practice facility.
In spite of the Rice debacle, the loss of two important starters to injury, another defeat against Cincinnati and Ben Roethlisberger's six touchdown passes in a 43-23 rout, the Ravens reached their bye week with a 6-4 record and poised to make a run at the postseason.
In this very unusual season, coach John Harbaugh and his players have learned that dealing with distractions is as important as converting third downs.
"I think everyone does a great job of that, top to bottom," tight end Owen Daniels said. "We have great leadership starting from the top. Coach Harbs does an awesome job of keeping things in perspective, keeping us focused on things that we can worry about. If you can't change it, there's no need to worry about it."
The Ravens began the process of putting Rice behind them by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 11. Eventually, the former Pro Bowl running back and the firestorm surrounding his dismissal became a distant memory.
"As far as the team and the organization, obviously everyone has kind of moved on," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "That's just the way the business side works. It's gone and over with. So, in terms of the professional environment, which we're here for, that's not an issue for us."
It's not a factor on the field because journeyman Justin Forsett has emerged as a suitable replacement for Rice. Forsett is averaging 5.4 yards per carry and with 721 yards has already eclipsed Rice's total from last season.
"I feel like the sky's the limit," Forsett said. "We still can improve in some areas. I know I can improve in some areas. I just want to push this thing as far as I can go."
Forsett is operating behind a line that's had to rely on rookies James Hurst and John Urschel, and the leading tackler on defense is top draft pick C.J. Mosley. Although currently nursing a hamstring injury, seventh-round selection Michael Campanaro has six catches for 85 yards and a touchdown.
"This (rookie) class has contributed as much or more than any class in recent history here with the Ravens," Harbaugh said. "They love football. I don't see their heads in a lot of different places. I see them thinking about football every single day, and those are the kind of guys you want to bring in."
The offense has showed promise under coordinator Gary Kubiak, the former Houston head coach who took over when Jim Caldwell left to become head coach at Detroit.
Joe Flacco has been sacked just 14 times compared to 48 last year. Free agent addition Steve Smith leads the team with 49 catches for 728 yards, and Daniels made tight end Dennis Pitta's season-ending hip injury easier to tolerate.
"We've had some big, big days offensively and we've had some struggles here over the course of the last four or five weeks," Kubiak said. "I don't think we're even close to what we can get done this year."
The same can be said of the defense. The revamped secondary appears capable of overcoming the loss of cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot surgery) and moving past that embarrassing outing against Roethlisberger at Pittsburgh.
"I'm very pleased with really the whole group back there," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said.
And so, even though the Ravens are 2-3 in the AFC North and tied for last in the division, they feel pretty good about their situation heading into the final six weeks of the season.
"We realize that we would like to be a lot better, but we're just going to take it," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "After 10 games, we've won six of them. We've lost four games to four teams with winning records. There's a lot to be said about that."
The remaining schedule is favorable — home games against Jacksonville, San Diego and Cleveland — along with games at New Orleans, Miami and Houston.
First, though, the Ravens will enjoy a long-awaited bye.
"We have the opportunity to get some guys healthy, get rested up," Suggs said. "When we come back, we have six games left — three home, three away — and we're feeling very optimistic about them."
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