Initial comments:** ML: "The game Sunday is a great opportunity for us to finish the regular season the correct way. When the schedule comes out, what you want is to finish the last couple at home, and we've had that. It's a big game for us. We don't know what it'll mean until it's over, and really not until later that evening, but we're going to do everything we can to win. We've got to continue to push forward on offense, defense and special teams, in all three phases, and play better. We know we're going to play a good football team that has a lot to play for, as we do as well."
This is going to be a full-go, even though you've clinched the division title?
ML: "Yes. Full-go."
What do you remember most about the first Baltimore game?
ML: "Well, we get stopped on the fourth-and-one, and from there we had the flea-flicker and the pass interference penalty. They score on second down, we go back and give up another play, and we got behind. We had to fight back into the football game. I can remember at halftime kind of calming the troops down and refocusing for the second half. With the aid of the Hail Mary we were able to get the ball game tied back up. That's the thing, we have to get off to a good start. We can't allow explosive plays, can't turn the football over and can't allow plays on special teams."
Falling behind big and early at Baltimore and Pittsburgh takes away from game plan doesn't it?
ML: "It takes a lot of that away."
It seems you have made a lot of gains with your red zone offense. Has it been execution? Or playcalling?
ML: "I think it's everything. It's execution, most definitely. That's the biggest thing. You have to be efficient with the ball. You've got to get good protection when you need it. You've got to be able to run it when you can. The field gets compressed down there, so you've got to be quick and efficient with the ball and understand the defense. The 11 guys on the offense have to see the looks, and the quarterback has to do an excellent job. The quarterback did a phenomenal job on Sunday of getting us in the right spot and delivering the ball where it needed to be. That was huge. Andy (Dalton) took all of the guesswork out of things Sunday. That's big. Throughout his three seasons here, he's done such a great job in the red zone, and he continues to."
Andy's about to break some franchise records. What does that mean for him?
ML: "He keeps pressing forward. At 14 games this year, I think his numbers were better than they were a year ago, and last year's numbers were better than the first year. His touchdowns-to-interceptions and interceptions were exactly the same at 14 games as they were last year at 16 games, and touchdowns were ahead. Now, he's moved ahead more. You have to keep on doing that. That's the way quarterbacks are judged, that and wins. No doubt about that. Now he's gotten his team into the playoffs three years in a row, and now he's got to push over that next hump, which is key. But he continues to do a great job. Each and every challenge that comes at him, he continues to be up to it, and he just keeps pressing forward."
Your defense is allowing the fewest red-zone possessions:
ML: "It's a big deal, but again, your best defense is when you're sitting on the bench drinking Gatorade and the offense is out there. It's still the best defense. But they've done a great job, and we've got to keep focusing on that in every way. It's just like we said for the offense, it's the defensive players understanding the situation, understanding the field, the field zones and where we are, the front, coverage and pressure, all matching together, and applying it to the opponent.
Despite significant player losses, the defense can finish in the top five. What's that say as testament to coaches and players?
ML: "It's big to the coaching and the leadership of the defensive guys. Guys have stepped up and continue to mature. That's great. The Michael Johnsons, who continue to put the team on their back. Domata (Peko) goes down, and its fourth-and-17, and he's making sure the receiver is down. That's a huge play for a defensive tackle who just rushed the passer, and now on fourth-and-17, he's the guy that's finishing the receiver on the catch. Those are things that mean a lot, and it shows you what it means to those guys."
Does it also speak to your 'don't flinch' philosophy?
ML: "Well, you can't. If you do, then hesitation will get you beat, or it has a chance to get you beat. So we have to keep moving forward. The injuries are an unfortunate part of the NFL. It can happen out here on the practice field. We can move a drill, flip it around and let's go, but we've got to know how to focus. Sometimes they look at me because they feel I'm pretty callous at that, but that's what we have to do. We have to move forward. We've got to let the people who attend to that attend to it, and we've got to coach and play because that's what our job is."
There's now an expectation that there will be no dropoff:
ML: "I think these players have set a high bar. We keep coaching and reinforcing that. They're doing a nice job of self-policing it. It's important to them. We don't need any pats on the back yet. We've got a long way to go."
What has been the key to better protection for Andy? Was it moving Andrew Whitworth to guard? Getting the running game going?
ML: "If you get an emphasis on the running game, it's always going to be good for you. I think what you do throwing it all of the time. I don't recall. I'm not going to sit here and recite anything plus or minus from the Baltimore game to you today. It's water under that bridge."
You've got a new offensive line. Do you think that has anything to do with it?
ML: "I think the line then was doing fine, just like the line now is doing fine, but it's what we do this Sunday that matters."
How has Elvis Dumervil played for them, compared to his time in Denver?
ML: "I think he's done a good job. He's fit right into their scheme, and they've done a nice job of using him and utilizing his skills. I've been impressed with him. He had a brief period in Denver where they tried to go to the 3-4, the year Mike Nolan was out there, and then they flipped back from it, but I think that Elvis has done a nice job. He's showed he's being a pro with his flexibility of doing things."
Are you pleased there are no AFC North Championship hats out among the team? There's not much talk about winning division:
ML: "There's a couple of bigger hats to achieve."
Did you put them in a closet?
ML: "No comment." (laughs)
Does that speak to the maturity within the entire building? Sunday felt just like a win in Week 4 or 5:
ML: "We're trying not to let anything change. The focus was winning the football game. That was it. That was all we could control, and it comes down to the same thing again this week. If we win the football game, that's all we can control and we keep moving on. We've been in that mode for awhile now, and that's all we can keep doing. I keep trying to say it, and I know that it sounds simplistic, but it literally is that."
When did you feel you had a group of guys cut from that cloth?
ML: "I think you gain maturity, you gain history – what's the word? Battle scars, battle wounds as you go. You get guys that build upon that. We started out there this season with a trip down to Atlanta early, and that's part of that, to go down there and practice against a team that had been a perennial playoff team with high expectations and good players. It let our guys see what other good players look like day-to-day on the practice field, and to compete against those guys down there with the Falcons. It was a great experience for us, and we continue to grow from that. It was great for our quarterback, great for our skill guys to go down there and compete against their guys. We continued to grow from that point. That was a good start for us. That's what competition is. Every time somebody drops their hat in the ring, we've got to be ready to go. That's what we need to do."
How much would it mean for this franchise to go 8-0 at home?
ML: "Well, it would mean we went 8-0 at home (smiles)."
It would be fourth time in franchise history:
ML: "Well, it's a tremendous thing for our fans. They've been awesome. There's an advantage you gain at home, and we want to keep building that. I want them to understand that there is really an involvement they can have at these home games, and to me this is the best thing about the NFL. You want to come to the football game and enjoy the atmosphere. It's a great thing. It's a great fun day and atmosphere, and one day I'll be trading spots with them. You'll look forward to that because that's what's fun. You can't capture it anywhere else, because it is special like that. Hopefully people keep understanding that, and it's important, and it's fun. Everybody tells me how many people were at the Freezer Bowl. The stadiums weren't that big back then. They didn't hold a half million people, because that's how many people in Cincinnati have told me they were there. It's big, but the bigger thing is to win whenever the first playoff game, next week or the week after, and to be victorious and keep moving forward."
Has the crowd been different than in previous years?
ML: "I don't think it's different, no."
Only three teams around the league are undefeated at home this year. Homefield advantage is great but it's still a difficult thing to do:
ML: "It's a difficult thing to do and we haven't done it yet."
The Ravens didn't go unbeaten at home and that's a good home field:
ML: "They enjoy a great home field crowd. The crowd noise there is incredible. It's hard to overcome. You've got to have real concentration when you're on offense, when you're on the field playing, and then on defense when you're on the sideline trying to make adjustments and preview the next series, so you've got to have a real concentration. The defensive players have to have that, so it's an atmosphere that's incredible."
Did you watch much of the Baltimore game on Sunday?** AD: "I watched some of it. Wanted to see what was going on with everything, so I checked it out."
How much more does it mean to win a division title than to make playoffs as a wild card?
AD: "It's big. It's the next step for us. The last couple of years we made it as a Wild Card; now to win the division is big. It's good to know that we'll have the home playoff game. That was one of our goals going into this season."
There's still a lot at stake on Sunday with the No. 2 seed:
AD: "Yeah, this is a big game for us. You never know what can happen. Kind of the way it's been the last several games. If we take care of our business, everything will fall into place."
Last year, the final game vs. the Ravens was kind of a preseason game, with guys coming out of the game to rest. Do you think it will be better this year, playing an all-out game?
AD: "Yeah, I think it will be good. It's the same routine for us, same everything. It's not like guys are going to be coming out and all that stuff. So I think it will be helpful for us."
Baltimore got a lot of pressure on you last time. Is their front seven one of the more imposing units you've faced?
AD: "They're really good upfront with the two outside guys, even the guys in the middle. We've got to be stout in protection. I've got to get the ball out of my hands, and try not to take the sacks, and we have to do what we can to not allow the pressure."
Is that one of the biggest areas of improvement for you, not taking sacks and getting rid of the ball?
AD: "That's part of it. It's definitely an emphasis to try not to have the negative plays. I've got to keep doing a better job of that. We've done a good job of that the last several weeks, and we've got to keep that going."
Does it amaze you that your offensive line keeps getting switched around but there's no drop-off in how they perform?
AD: "Our guys have done a really good job. We've got an experienced line, guys who have played different positions before throughout their career, so for them to be able to make the switch has been big for us. I don't lose any confidence in those guys when something does happen and there's a little shuffling going on. We've got a bunch of talented guys, big physical guys. So the moving around hasn't really affected us."
You're close to some franchise passing records. Winning matters most, but does that kind of thing mean anything to you?
AD: "It does. It shows what we've been able to accomplish this year. I think that only happens if we've been winning games and doing some good things. Personally, it's cool to be close to those records, but like you said, wins are what ultimately matters."
The tight ends and running backs have done a good job blocking in pass protection. How important is that this week against Baltimore?
AD: "They're going to be big. That's the strength of their defense, the front guys getting pressure. Our guys have got to be stout up front. And the backs and whoever's in protection, they've got to be sharp on their assignments and their blitz pickups. We've done a good job with that recently. So we've got to keep it going."
Do you feel everything is clear now when you make your reads and you're not hesitant?
AD: "I feel the more you play the game, the more understanding you have, the better you should feel back there. So I'm pretty comfortable with what we're doing and with the different looks that we get. It comes down to executing, and we've done a good job of that."