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Original Issue

Holding On

While they wait for safety Ed Reed to return, the Ravens are atop the AFC thanks to their tenacious D

While Brett Favre hijacked the off-season news cycle by waffling about whether to return to the Vikings for his 20th NFL season, Ed Reed was quietly dragging the Ravens through his own soap opera. Still smarting from hip and neck injuries that forced him to miss four games in 2009, the eighth-year safety threatened to retire this summer.

But what was really making Reed sore was his contract. Reed, who signed a six-year, $40 million extension in '06 (a record for a safety at the time), ripped the Ravens in July for allowing him to be outearned in the intervening years by peers who, he said, "I honestly wouldn't let hold my jock." He also blasted Baltimore for not supplying him with game tape to study as he convalesced, something coach John Harbaugh (page 56) later said was the result of simple miscommunication. Even so, the '04 Defensive Player of the Year kept himself in the organization's good graces by diligently rehabbing from April hip surgery in a bid to return to the lineup by Week 1.

Despite his best efforts, Reed was relegated to the physically-unable-to-perform list to start the season, and most observers figured that his absence—plus the loss of ball-hawking cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who incurred a season-ending knee injury during training camp—would doom the Ravens. Instead they've zoomed to the top of the AFC on the strength of their stellar pass defense. The unit had allowed the fewest yards per game (119.0) entering Sunday's clash with the Broncos. Apart from the combined 133 yards and two touchdowns the Ravens yielded in the last two minutes of both halves, they held the league's most prolific passing offense to just 174 yards and capitalized on 90 more yards of Denver penalties in a 31--17 win.

As in their previous victories, the Ravens got just enough pressure from their blitz-happy pass rush to disrupt the Broncos' timing—and that set up their ragtag secondary, which prides itself on preparation. Fabian Washington had stepped up his conditioning last week to keep up with Lloyd, a favorite target of quarterback Kyle Orton's. "I just had to lock in to what he was doing, because he's a very shifty receiver," says Washington, who broke up four of Orton and Brandon Lloyd's 14 attempted connections and nearly picked off one of them.

Overall the Ravens have only one interception, but that number stands to grow if Reed (the franchise leader with 46 career INTs) returns to the lineup in Week 7 against Buffalo, as expected. "Dude gets picks from the other side of the field like he's getting his mail from the mailbox," Washington says. Assuming Reed returns to form—and stops complaining about his salary—the Ravens just might suck all of the drama out of the AFC title hunt.

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AIR MARSHAL Washington (far left) broke up four passes and, with Chris Carr (25), tackled Broncos wideout Jabar Gaffney.