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Ravens hold final practice before heading south

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Ravens hold final practice before heading south

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) The music blared in the Baltimore Ravens locker room Saturday as the players threw their football gear into black duffel bags lying in front of their cubicles.

Next stop, New Orleans.

After one final practice at their own training facility, the Super Bowl-bound Ravens will take Sunday off before heading for the Big Easy on Monday afternoon in anticipation of their matchup on Feb. 3 against the San Francisco 49ers.

``We're right where we want to be,'' wide receiver Torrey Smith said. ``Now we have an opportunity to play in the big one. But at the end of the day, we're still getting ready for a football game.''

Coach John Harbaugh conducted practice from Thursday through Saturday as if it was a normal work week. They went hard on Thursday and Friday and eased up Saturday.

``We've had a great week. We had an excellent practice,'' Harbaugh said after the closed two-hour session. ``The guys are very sharp and they're excited. We'll have to go down there and do just as well (or) do better.''

The next time the Ravens hit the practice field, it will be in New Orleans. This week, at least, there were no distractions.

``I think it's always important to have a good practice no matter what,'' Harbaugh said. ``You've got to practice well to play well. You pretty much play the way you practice. That's something that we learned when we were kids and that's not going to change.''

It was final practice at the team's training complex for Ray Lewis, who intends to retire after the Super Bowl. Center Matt Birk has made no such announcement, but there is a possibility the 36-year-old is also preparing for his last game.

``I don't think like that,'' Birk said. ``I just try to live in the moment. That's just kind of my mindset. I don't think about the future or if this could be it. It drives my wife nuts, but that's just not how I operate.''

Now in his 15th NFL season - the fourth with Baltimore - Birk's knees are scarred from several operations and he had surgery during the offseason to repair varicose veins in his legs. But he played in all 16 games during the regular season and remained solid in the middle of the offensive line during the postseason.

``I'm not sure about Matt's plans,'' Harbaugh said. ``If he decides to come back next year that would be awesome. He's smart, he's tough. To my eye, he's playing the best football that he's played since he's been here, right now. To have that be true at the end of a (long) season is very impressive. We would not be where we are without Matt Birk.''

Looking ahead to the challenge next Sunday, Harbaugh called the 49ers ``a very well-coached football team.'' He said it with a grin, because San Francisco is coached by his little brother, Jim.

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Ravens' Steve Smith answers backhanded compliment like the legend he is

Ravens' Steve Smith answers backhanded compliment like the legend he is

Custom cleats are taking over the NFL, and this Sunday, players will have a chance to wear them during the games. The league will allow players to customize cleats with designs that represent causes they care about. 

Ravens receiver Steve Smith has been outspoken about putting an end to domestic violence, so he plans to use his cleats as a platform for that message this weekend. 

The shiny gold shoes drew a lot of praise on Twitter, but one user decided to weigh in with a backhanded compliment. And as you'd expect, it was a mistake. 

For the uninitiated, there is a reason Smith warns people in his Twitter bio, "If you come @ me, it definitely won't end in your favor." Just ask Anthony Brown and Jalen Ramsey

MORE RAVENS: Five factors to predict Dolphins at Ravens

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Five factors to predict Dolphins at Ravens this Sunday

Five factors to predict Dolphins at Ravens this Sunday

What: Dolphins (7-4) at Ravens (6-5)

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

Where: M&T Bank Stadium

Ravens injuries:

OUT – TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh), G Alex Lewis (ankle), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh).

DOUBTFUL – RB Buck Allen (non-football issue).

QUESTIONABLE – WR Kamar Aiken (thigh), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle).

Dolphins injuries:

OUT – C Maurkice Pouncey (hip).

DOUBTFUL – CB Xavien Howard (knee).

QUESTIONABLE – OT Branden Albert (wrist), LB Kiko Alonso (hamstring), G Jermon Bushrod (calf), RB Kenyen Drake (knee); LB Jelani Jenkins (knee/hand); DT Earl Mitchell (back); WR DeVante Parker (back); G/T Laremy Tunsil (shoulder).

Five questions you should ask:

1. Are the Dolphins ready to win a big road game in December?

Despite their six-game winning streak, the Dolphins are just 2-3 away from home. Now you’re asking them to win at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Dolphins are 0-2 all-time? We’ll see. The Dolphins will gain credibility as an AFC playoff threat if they win this game.

2. Can the Ravens put together a complete offensive performance?

Quarterback Joe Flacco wasn’t satisfied with the Ravens’ 19-14 win over the Bengals in Week 12. Actually, he hasn’t been satisfied with the offense all season.

“When you have a team 16-3, you would like to choke them out and get it over with,” Flacco said.

He knows the Ravens have to play better offensively to go on a December run. And part of that improvement starts with Flacco.

3. Can the Ravens’ offensive line handle Cameron Wake (8½ sacks) and Ndamukong Suh (five sacks)?

The Dolphins’ defensive line has the ability to make Flacco’s day miserable. The Ravens’ offensive line will need one of its better performances.

4. Which team’s running game will be most effective?

This could be the key to victory, because both teams want to run and utilize play-action passing. Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (847 yards, 5.3 yards per carry) is a load, but the Ravens have the NFL’s top-ranked run defense. Ravens rookie running back Kenneth Dixon is coming off his best game (13 carries, 49 yards), and looks ready to share more carries with Terrance West (600 yards).

5. Can the Ravens get enough pressure on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill?

Tannehill has nine touchdown passes and just one interception during the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak. The Dolphins like to get Tannehill outside the pocket and take advantage of his ability to throw accurately on the move. Tannehill’s game has grown under new head coach Adam Gase. If the Ravens don’t throw Tannehill off his rhythm, he will make plays.

Prediction: Expect a typical close Ravens game, but I see them squeezing out a critical victory, on the strength of Justin Tucker’s leg.

Ravens 20, Dolphins 17 

MORE RAVENS: How Ravens could still win AFC North