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Ravens primed to make second-half run

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) _ They went six straight weeks without their best receiver, lost the defending NFL rushing champion for two games and watched in horror as their All-Pro left tackle tumbled to the turf with a pulled hamstring.

The Baltimore Ravens overcame a rash of injuries, the uneven play of quarterback Kyle Boller and the suspension of All-Pro running back Jamal Lewis to finish the first half of their schedule with the same record they had at the midpoint a year ago.

All-told, no one is complaining about being 5-3.

I'm pretty happy where we're at, given what we've gone through,'' Lewis said Wednesday.I wish it was better, of course, but we're doing well given that we lost a couple of guys and haven't had everybody on the field at the same time this year.''

Tight end Todd Heap, who led the Ravens in catches and yards receiving in 2003, sprained his ankle in the second game and has since taken up residence in the training room. He will miss a seventh consecutive game Sunday against the New York Jets.

Left tackle Jonathan Ogden also is out, still limping from a hamstring pull Oct. 24. Defensive back Deion Sanders will probably miss Sunday's game with a toe injury.

Fortunately, the Ravens have been able to fill the holes. When Lewis was suspended for violating the NFL substance abuse policy, Chester Taylor and Musa Smith performed adequately in his place.

Terrell Suggs has made it easier for the Ravens to cope with the absence of linebacker Peter Boulware, who has yet to suit up this season because of a knee injury. Casey Rabach won the job as the starting center after replacing the injured Mike Flynn.

Depth is a key, but the primary reason that Baltimore remains just two games behind first-place Pittsburgh in the AFC North is its defense. The Ravens have yielded an NFL-low 113 points, forced 17 turnovers and scored four touchdowns on interception returns.

Ed Reed, the NFL's defensive player of the week after his record 106-yard interception return Sunday night in a 27-13 victory over Cleveland, believes the Ravens are poised to make a second-half run.

``It's going to be fun,'' he said.

The schedule suggests otherwise. Including Sunday's game against the Jets (6-2), the combined record of Baltimore's final four road opponents is an imposing 25-7.

We've been here before,'' coach Brian Billick said.We've been 5-3 or worse.

``That experience is huge, and those who weren't here can draw from the guys that were.''

This team appears to be similar to all the rest under Billick in that it relies heavily on defense and the running game. The offense is ranked 32nd in the NFL and Boller is the 16th-rated quarterback in the AFC.

Although Boller has thrown only three touchdown passes compared to six interceptions, he went 24-for-38 for 223 yards two weeks ago against Philadelphia and was 17-for-30 for 142 yards against the Browns.

I think I made strides the first eight weeks,'' he said.I will continue to try and work hard each practice and learn new things, and hopefully by Game 16 I'll be full speed ahead.''

Since Billick took over in 1999, the Ravens have gone 29-13 in November and December. The process begins in the summer, during a training camp that features a minimum of full-contact drills.

The way we prepare for November is the key,'' Lewis said.Guys are pretty much fresh, just because of the way Coach takes care of us in training camp and at the beginning of the season.''

Lewis is particularly fresh, in part because of his mandated two-week vacation. He talked about not getting enough action after 22 carries again the Browns, but Wednesday he backed off that assertion.

I just need enough to get away with a win,'' he said.Every good playmaker feels like if the ball is in his hands, he can make something happen. I just want to be able to utilize all my talents on the field, so we can win comfortably.''

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