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One more game before new season begins for the Ravens

Team's most favorable path would be against Indianapolis Colts, on road vs. Houston Texans

Mike Preston

9:58 PM EST, December 27, 2012

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The Ravens' regular-season finale Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals is like the final preseason game — it's just one more test before the new season begins.

So, you can yawn through that one like you do during actual preseason games, and then once it is over, the real fun begins.

Right now, the Ravens are the No. 4 seed in the AFC and could move up to No. 3, depending on the outcome of a few other games Sunday.

But they don't need anything to change. With the current seeds, the Ravens are in good position.

They would host the Indianapolis Colts in a wild-card round game and then — if they win — travel to face the top-seeded Houston Texans in the divisional round.

It might sound crazy considering the Texans crushed the Ravens, 43-13, in Week 7, but the preference here is to go into Houston with some motivation rather than either playing on the road against the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning or the New England Patriots' Tom Brady.

There's a chance the Ravens could play Cincinnati for a third time in the wild-card round, but Indianapolis is a better matchup.

In a third game, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis could find a way to beat the Ravens. He is 10-9 against his former team, even though he's only 3-6 when facing current Ravens coach John Harbaugh.

But Indianapolis coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is a first-year coach who is starting a rookie at quarterback. I like that matchup for the Ravens.

Sure, the Ravens lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers and third-string quarterback Charlie Batch this season. And they also dropped a game in overtime to the Washington Redskins' pair of rookie quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins, but the situation is different now.

It is crunch time in the NFL, and Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck would be starting his first playoff game in Baltimore, which has one of the loudest crowds in the league.

That helps make the Ravens favorites in the potential matchup, regardless of Luck's success this year.

Plus, Indianapolis plays in the AFC South. With the exception of Houston, who else in that division scares you?

The Colts have become a media favorite, and there would be some great storylines with Pagano coming back to Baltimore after his battle with leukemia, and Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell going against the team where he spent nearly a decade as a coach, four years as the head guy.

Luck is going to be a great quarterback. He has completed 325 of 599 passes for 4,183 yards and 21 touchdowns, and he has three capable receivers in Reggie Wayne (102 catches, 1,315 yards, five touchdowns), T.Y. Hilton (46, 750, six) and Donnie Avery (60, 781, three).

But the Colts seem a year away from being legitimate contenders. They got crushed, 59-24, by New England in Week 11. Their two top pass rushers in previous years, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, have combined for only 12 sacks, and Indianapolis has the No. 30 rushing defense in the NFL, allowing 139.9 yards a game.

The Ravens could hitch a ride on running backs Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce and fullback Vonta Leach to a second-round game against Houston.

Earlier in the season, the Texans were the favorite in the AFC to get to the Super Bowl. They had all the weapons, especially on offense with quarterback Matt Schaub (326-for-508 for 3,733 yards and 22 touchdowns), running back Arian Foster (335 attempts, 1,328 yards, 14 touchdowns) and wide receiver Andre Johnson (100 catches, 1,457 yards, four touchdowns).

And Houston has a good front seven on defense, led by defensive ends J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith and nose guard Shaun Cody.

But in the past three weeks, the Texans have become vulnerable. Opposing teams are picking on their cornerbacks.

New England lit up the Texans, 42-14, on Dec. 10, and the Minnesota Vikings upset Houston, 23-6, last week.

The Ravens have motivation because they would want to prove their lopsided loss earlier this year in Houston was an aberration.

Schaub is a good quarterback, but he's in the same group with the Ravens' Joe Flacco.

Neither is in the same class with Manning or Brady, and that's where the line in the sand is drawn for as far as the Ravens can go.

The Ravens don't have an elite quarterback, and they will struggle against the Broncos or Patriots. Denver is the most balanced team in the field, and New England can score points in bunches. Both teams are tough to beat at home.

At least in the first two games, if the schedule works out, the Ravens have a reasonable chance of winning — even though a win against Houston would still be considered a long shot.

But the Ravens don't see it that way. They think they have momentum.

"That momentum, it's sort of like you were going to say, 'stop the bleeding,' " Rice said. "We know what kind of pressure we were under. We're not used to that losing streak. We were able to always bounce back after one [loss]. So, that was something that was different for us. To know that the playoffs are around the corner — I said it on Sunday — we are talking about a Ravens team who are battle-tested.

"There is nothing that you could throw at us that we haven't dealt with. We've dealt with injury. We've even dealt with death with one of our teammates' family members [Torrey Smith's brother in September]. We've dealt with everything else you can imagine during one year. So, this team right here is focused. We're battle-tested going forward, and that makes me feel good about this team, because it's different.

"It's different than any other year."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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