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OWINGS MILLS — The Baltimore Ravens are bent on survival, banking that an upcoming bye following Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills will provide the panacea this injury-riddled football team is in dire need of.
Nowhere is that motivation more prominent for the Ravens (4-2) than their decision to start quarterback Kyle Boller against Buffalo (1-4) in order to rest starter Steve McNair’s ailing back and groin injuries for a total of three weeks, including last Sunday’s 22-3 victory over the St. Louis Rams.
Even if Boller excels against the Bills, Ravens coach Brian Billick emphasized that he won’t contemplate changing quarterbacks, getting ahead of a potential controversy. The only caveat on McNair not regaining his job Nov. 5 against the Pittsburgh Steelers would be how he’s doing medically.
"There is no circumstance that I can think of that would not have him as our starter," Billick said. "We’re lucky to have Kyle, but Steve McNair will be the quarterback, health as a qualifier, for the Pittsburgh Steelers."
Immediately after the Ravens’ one-sided win Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium that included a franchise-record five interceptions and a record-tying six turnovers, Billick announced that Boller would remain under center against Buffalo.
Why did Billick make the early announcement? He didn’t think anyone would believe him if he tried a let’s-see-how-he’s-feeling approach to McNair all week.
"I could have tried to play that game; you all wouldn’t have bought it and I don’t know if would have tricked Buffalo," Billick said. "We kind of went past that by starting Kyle last week, and it was pretty evident we were going to do the same thing this week."
Although McNair has a history of playing hurt, even not practicing for entire weeks or undergoing minor surgeries and still playing well on Sundays, Billick thought the idea of a three-week recuperation period was the best action to take.
Ultimately, after discussions between McNair, general manager Ozzie Newsome, the coaching staff and even McNair’s wife, Mechelle, it was determined that it was in the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback’s best interests to shut it down for a few games.
"Steve McNair doesn’t have to prove to anybody his courage, his whole career has been that," Billick said. "The idea of getting a chance to be healthy as we approach midseason is intriguing to him because he’s been battling through it. That competitor does come out, but he recognized the value in doing this, and so he is very much signed off on it. It was an interactive process."
With McNair watching from the bench, Boller took a beating against the Rams where he was sacked twice behind three rookies on the offensive line and endured a shot to his knee that nearly sidelined him in the second quarter. McNair began warming up, but Boller stayed in the game even though Baltimore had to burn a timeout.
"I was staying in," said Boller, who completed 18 of 30 passes for 184 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. "It was nothing that I couldn’t continue to play."
That big-picture motivation of wanting to have the starters fully healthy could extend to Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, whose lower hamstring pull tightened up in the first half against St. Louis. Heap didn’t return, and the Ravens are down to one healthy tight end: Quinn Sypniewski.
"If we can be prudent with Todd this week, I’m very confident that he should be as healthy as you can be going into Pittsburgh," Billick said. "The idea of that is very intriguing to us, but we have other priorities between now and then and that’s to beat Buffalo.
"My guess is that Todd Heap by the end of the week will feel pretty good about the hamstring. He feels much better than he did after Cleveland, but we’ll still have to make a decision because to have that injury on a Todd Heap possibly lingers for the next month and a half.."
Although offensive tackle Adam Terry’s sprained ankle could keep him out again this week, as will All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden’s lingering turf toe injury that has his entire season in doubt, Billick expressed confidence that center Mike Flynn will likely return this week after sitting out one week with a sprained medial collateral ligament.
Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister tweaked his knee in what Billick described as the most serious new injury and is regarded as day-to-day.
Defensive end Trevor Pryce, whose pass-rushing presence has been sorely missed, will have the pins removed from his broken left wrist this week and is pointing toward the Pittsburgh game for his return after missing the past four games.
"Trevor Pryce, it’s real simple, the pins come out this week and he’ll have two weeks to get it in shape, get used to it," Billick said. "He isn’t going to play against Buffalo. You just don’t do that."
Although the Ravens have struggled offensively, particularly in the red zone where they went 1-for-5 Sunday for one touchdown and eight field goals over the past two games, the defense has proven capable of carrying this team.
The Ravens are counting on that fourth-ranked defense again as they try to enter their bye 5-2 overall with the meat of their schedule on the horizon.
Baltimore’s first seven games are against opponents with a combined record of 10-28. During the second half of the season, they’ll play against teams with a combined current mark of 29-21, including two pivotal games against the 4-1 Steelers.
"With the bye coming up, there is a potential to get an athlete fairly healthy that has to be factored in," Billick said. "So there are hard choices that way. We need the bye desperately, physically and emotionally, to rest."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.