For teams with Super Bowl aspirations, December games are must-wins.
It doesn’t have to be pretty through the first 14 or so weeks, just as long as you’re in position for the postseason. After the last two weeks there are some questions as to whether this year’s Ravens are prepared for the postseason.Two weeks ago Baltimore was crushed by the San Diego Chargers, a team that has since been eliminated from playoff contention. Against Cleveland on Christmas Eve, Baltimore jumped out to a 20-0 lead, giving promise that the week before was a fluke.
But the Ravens lacked the killer instinct needed at this time of year and allowed the Browns to crawl back into the game as Joshua Cribbs ran through a porous special teams defense for a score. A few minutes later Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace marched the Browns 80 yards, ending with a touchdown pass to tight end Evan Moore to make the score 20-14. The fourth quarter was far more tense than it needed to be, and if it weren’t for three Browns blunders (one at the end of the first half, two at the end of the second) then Baltimore may not have come out victorious.
With a loss to San Diego and a shaky victory over the Cleveland Browns, the banged-up Ravens are not playing their typical dominant December football.
Yet despite the team’s play the last two weeks, Baltimore finds itself in position for the AFC’s No. 2 seed if it beats Cincinnati this Sunday.
“Now we have to win one,” coach John Harbaugh said following Saturday’s game. “It’s going to be an incredibly difficult environment (in Cincinnati) against a tremendous football team that we have a great rivalry against. I think that’s pretty much the way the NFL wanted it to be set up, and that’s the way it set up.”
The Bengals are also fighting for a playoff spot, though they need some help from other teams even if they beat Baltimore. Cincinnati is not an easy place to play, and Baltimore has had trouble on the road, posting a 3-4 mark—though in the NFL if you win all your games at home and split on the road, you’ve put yourself in a good spot.
That’s what Baltimore’s looking to do against Cincinnati.
“We have not reached our best point yet,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “We reach our best point when we hold that trophy up. We have to get back in this thing and get ready to play football next week.”
If Baltimore beats Cincinnati and New England beats Buffalo:
Ravens win AFC North and second seed in the playoffs; guaranteed a first-week bye and at least one home game
If Baltimore beats Cincinnati and Buffalo beats New England:
Baltimore gains the first seed and home games throughout the playoffs
If Baltimore loses to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh beats or ties Cleveland:
Baltimore becomes the fifth seed and travels to Denver or Oakland to play the AFC West winner
If Baltimore loses and Pittsburgh loses:
Baltimore wins AFC North and second seed in the playoffs because it wins the tiebreaker with Houston
The offense has had its issues this season, which shouldn’t be that surprising with the new receivers brought into the offense, along with the lack of OTAs—“organized team activities” in NFL-speak—and offseason work caused by the lockout.
But it’s the defense’s struggles the last two weeks that has folks worried about whether the Ravens can play through January and compete for a Super Bowl title. The corners had a hard time covering the big-bodied Chargers receivers. And the front-seven couldn’t stop Browns running back Peyton Hillis from rumbling for 112 rushing yards.
Ray Lewis is still dealing with pain in his injured toe. Ed Reed’s shoulder is a major concern since it’s preventing him from wrapping up when tackling.
Cornerback Cary Williams sustained a concussion when Pollard accidentally collided with him on a defensive play. And defensive end Cory Redding, who is having his best season as a Raven, has an injured ankle made worse during pre-game warmups on Saturday.
There’s a lot for Ravens fans to worry about with one game left in the regular season. But if the Ravens beat Cincinnati, they’ll have a home playoff game for the first time under Harbaugh. They’ll also have a week to rest for the NFL’s second season.
“When you get in the playoffs, that’s when you’re supposed to be hitting on all cylinders,” Lewis said. “The thing that we did now is put ourselves in a great position for the fourth year in a row, being back in the playoffs. Now, it’s up to us to go out and finish what we’re trying to finish, and that’s when you start clicking. It’s one thing to play these great games during the year and whatever, but for us now, it’s about playing those great games in the playoffs.”
by Jason Butt