- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2008

OWINGS MILLS, Md. | The Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens are fighting for playoff berths under rookie coaches whose roots are connected to the same coaching tree.

But even though both teams have winning records heading into Sunday night’s game in Baltimore, the Ravens are moving in a different direction under John Harbaugh than Jim Zorn and the Redskins.

Washington has gone 1-3 since starting 6-2; its postseason chances look shaky in the challenging NFC. Baltimore, meanwhile, has won six of seven. The 8-4 Ravens not only trail Pittsburgh by just one game in the AFC North, they are well-positioned for a wild card berth.

Still, Harbaugh said, “We need to get much better in the next month.”

Before replacing the fired Brian Billick, Harbaugh spent the past 10 seasons - nine under Andy Reid - in Philadelphia, coaching special teams and then the secondary. Reid is a disciple of Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, who employed Zorn for seven years.

Like Zorn, Harbaugh had never been an NFL coordinator or head coach at any level, although he does come from a football family. His younger brother, Jim, played quarterback in the NFL for 14 years and now is Stanford’s coach. His father, Jack, coached for 41 years in college.

Given last year’s 5-11 mess and Harbaugh’s perceived lack of managerial experience, expectations were muted. But Harbaugh argued that outsiders shouldn’t be so shocked by his team’s success.

“We think we’re a good football team,” he said. “I’m very proud of our guys. Our guys have worked really hard, and they’ve earned the right to be in this spot. So to look back and say we’re surprised or we thought we’d be here or wouldn’t be here - we don’t care about any of that. Our guys have earned the right to play meaningful football games in December. And that’s all we care about.”

Harbaugh wasn’t finished.

“We don’t care about playing in prime time,” he said. “We don’t care if the rest of the country knows about us or not. We’re not interested in any of that. We’re not trying to impress anybody. We’re getting ready to play a football game on Sunday, and I think our guys understand how to win a tough football game when it counts. They’ve proven that.”

Harbaugh admitted his image of the Ravens when he took over “wasn’t entirely good.” They certainly have changed that; he now calls his players “hard-nosed, tough, competitive and they take care of each other.”

As a result, one of the league’s best defenses has been reinvigorated even as a couple of mainstays, nose tackle Kelly Gregg and cornerback Chris McAlister, were lost for the season. The Ravens have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 31 straight games - a streak that dates to 2006.

The big surprise is the offense. Harbaugh is using three running backs to generate the league’s No. 3 rushing attack; quarterback Joe Flacco, a first-round draft pick out of Delaware, has been brilliant. He has registered the highest passer rating in the league since Oct. 19.

In Sunday’s 34-3 win against Cincinnati, Flacco completed 19 of 29 passes for 280 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Receiver Mark Clayton had five receptions for 164 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown catch, and also threw a 32-yard touchdown pass. Le’Ron McClain, listed as a 260-pound fullback, had 25 carries for 86 yards and leads the team in rushing.

“He’s a tough, physical guy - an old AFC type of runner,” tackle Willie Anderson said.

The Ravens are still a run-first team. But as demonstrated by Clayton’s pass, Harbaugh is opening up a perennially stodgy offense.

“It says we’re no longer going to wait on the defense to do things for us,” receiver Derrick Mason said. “We’re going to attack, attack, attack. That’s the type of mentality you have to have as an offensive team.”

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