By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun
8:04 PM EST, December 26, 2011
It's no mystery how high the stakes will be for the Ravens in their regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. But what is a mystery — and will likely remain one until kickoff — is what kind team is going to show up.
How much will injuries and the team's track record of inconsistent play on the road this season affect Baltimore's chances of securing its first division title since 2006? That's the question no one can answer right now, even Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
"We're on a course to be as good as we can be," Harbaugh said when asked whether he was comfortable with the way his team was playing on the cusp of the playoffs. "We're working hard to do that. We don't have to play any games that are behind us, and we don't have to play any games that are off in our future. We have to play this one. Obviously, it's got major ramifications for what is in front of us, so that's our focus."
Trying to get healthy, and quickly, might be the Ravens' biggest area of concern. Right guard Marshal Yanda has a serious rib bruise as well as a thigh bruise, which makes him extremely questionable to play. There was some concern after the Cleveland Browns game that his ribs might be broken, so as long as the Ravens aren't concealing the severity of his injuries, there is a bit of a silver lining there. But cornerback Cary Williams and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe are both nursing concussions, and defensive end Cory Redding will likely be questionable once again with a sore ankle.
Harbaugh did confirm Monday that kick returner David Reed tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the Ravens' 20-14 win over the Browns, and that he'll have surgery soon to repair the damage to his left knee. But with the Bengals fighting for a playoff berth and the Ravens needing a win to secure a first-round bye, don't expect the team to be very forthcoming about the status of any of its injured players this week. Anquan Boldin no longer has swelling in his knee, Harbaugh said, but the wide receiver has already been ruled out until the playoffs, at the minimum.
Even though they got very little production from their wide receivers against the Browns, the Ravens, according to Harbaugh, aren't particularly interested in signing any veteran free agents to boost their passing attack. That should quash speculation the team might be interested in a reunion with Derrick Mason. Mason has been working as part-time analyst for the NFL Network since the Houston Texans released him last month.
"There's really not a lot of guys out there," Harbaugh said. "If anything, people have been signing guys off their practice squads for about the last six weeks very aggressively. Unless a name comes before us, which we have not seen yet, I'd say that's probably not going to happen."
One difficult decision the Ravens will have this week is what to do about their kicking situation. Harbaugh said Billy Cundiff is doing "really well" recovering from an injured calf but he wants to see him practice first before assessing the situation. Shane Graham filled in for Cundiff against the Browns and was successful on two field-goal attempts, but his kickoffs were not particularly deep.
"We're not going to carry two kickers into the game if Billy's kicking," Harbaugh said.
Even if they were relatively healthy, the Ravens would still have to answer questions about the way they've played, at least at times, away from M&T Bank Stadium this year. Baltimore's biggest win of the season came November at Pittsburgh, but the Ravens have also had ugly losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers away from home. Harbaugh said he wasn't going to change anything about his approach to road games before the Cincinnatti game.
"I think we've got a good routine," he said. "It's proven. We're going to try to play better in the games we didn't win on the road. That's the main thing. Obviously, the turnovers were a big factor in some of those games. So those are the things that will be our focus."
The Ravens should have a few advantages to balance out some of the factors working against them. Several players said after the first game against the Bengals that they were surprised by how talented quarterback Andy Dalton was. They vowed not to make that mistake again.
"When we first played them, we didn't know what Andy was about," said Lardarius Webb, who leads the Ravens this season with five interceptions. "We just thought he was a rookie. But that's not true. He's way more than a rookie. We're going to have to prepare for this guy, because this guy is going to come out playing Andy Dalton ball."
If you throw out the San Diego game, the Ravens have performed well in contests for which expectations were high. They might have a litany of issues, but they've also shown the ability to rise to the occasion, which they'll need to do on Sunday if they want to secure a home playoff game for the first time in five years.
"Big game. It's no secret," inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. "A division foe, we know each other; they know us, we know them. I think we know what's at stake. And at the same time, the Bengals have a lot of pride over there, too. Marvin Lewis is going to definitely have them ready to play."
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