There are a few compelling reasons for the AFC North champion Ravens to resist the temptation to treat their regular-season finale as nothing more than an opportunity to rest injured players and protect key starters.
If the Ravens beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium and the New England Patriots lose to the Miami Dolphins later that afternoon, Baltimore would be the third seed in the AFC.
Should the Ravens remain in their current spot as the fourth seed, they would host a wild-card round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts the following week. At No. 3, the Ravens would play the Bengals, who are locked into the sixth seed no matter what happens Sunday, for the second time in as many weeks -- this one at M&T Bank Stadium.
Having lost three straight games before a resounding 33-14 victory Sunday over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants to win the AFC North division for the second year in a row, the Ravens are motivated to build momentum heading into the postseason.
The Ravens are trying to strike a balance between getting as healthy as possible for the playoffs while not squandering the chance to improve their postseason status.
"It's definitely a consideration," coach John Harbaugh said when asked whether he would substitute players against Cincinnati due to injuries or if the game is one-sided for either team. "The biggest thing is that you can't play this game half-speed. You have to play this game full-speed. Our guys are going to play the game full-speed to win the game.
"How that type of thing would shake out is definitely a consideration, but I would expect it to be a tight game all the way through. These are two evenly matched teams, and it's going to be a highly competitive game. So, I haven't really thought along those lines right now."
Inside the Ravens' locker room Sunday after the win over the Giants, several players expressed strong opinions about wanting to maintain their edge and not approach the Bengals game in a different way than any other week.
"The playoffs have already started for us," strong safety James Ihedigbo said. "All we have to do is keep winning, and the rest will take care of itself. There's no down time for us right now, and we want the AFC championship. We'll play next week like it's the playoffs. We don't know any other way."
After falling short against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, the Ravens beat the Giants through arguably their top all-around performance of the season.
The offense piled up a season-high 533 yards of total offense, including 224 rushing yards, as running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce gained over 100 yards apiece. The defense stymied Giants quarterback Eli Manning, sacking him three times and registering a season-high nine quarterback hits.
"Yeah, you got to take the Bengals game seriously," outside linebacker Paul Kruger said. "You don't want to lose the momentum. You don't want to get out of rhythm. I think we're going to prepare for this just like any other game."
In the loss to the Steelers, quarterback Joe Flacco was outdueled by third-string quarterback Charlie Batch. The play of rookie quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins, as well as a long punt return in overtime, sealed the defeat for the Ravens against the Redskins. And a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown as the Ravens were threatening to score spelled doom against the Broncos.
Following that dreadful run, the Ravens want to maintain any momentum and confidence generated through the win over the Giants.
"Especially with the last few weeks we've had, it feels really, really good," tight end Dennis Pitta said. "I can't imagine playing much better than we did and putting the last couple of weeks behind us.
"I think it's important to continue momentum going into the playoffs. At the same time, you want to make sure you're healthy. I don't know how we'll manage it, but we want to be smart about it. We'll be as sharp as we can going into the playoffs."
Winning at Cincinnati would provide a decent litmus test on where they stand after routing the Bengals, 44-13, to start the season. The Ravens are 4-3 on the road this season.
"It'd be a big plus for us," Harbaugh said. "It's a rivalry game because it's in the division. These two teams go at it pretty good every single time, so yeah, that's something that will help us build up our calluses a little bit for the playoffs."
Other than wide receiver Anquan Boldin bruising his left shoulder after he landed on it while making his seventh catch of the game, the Ravens didn't suffer any new injuries against the Giants.
With that said, several players could miss the game against the Bengals due to injury concerns.
Harbaugh already announced that inside linebacker Ray Lewis, who remains on the injured reserve-designated to return list with a surgically repaired torn right triceps, won't play until at least the playoffs.
The Ravens could also opt to give the following players more time to heal, either by limiting their playing time or keeping them off the field altogether: strong safety Bernard Pollard (damaged ribs), inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (sprained right ankle), outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (torn right biceps, Achilles tendon) and Boldin.
However, Harbaugh hasn't indicated how the Ravens will handle playing time against the Bengals.
The Ravens want to peak at the right time with a win against the Bengals and a sweep of the season series for the second consecutive time.
"Momentum, sure it's a good word," Harbaugh said. "What does that mean exactly? It means that we're improving. We always say that you either get better or you get worse. Sometimes, you are getting better and it doesn't show up in the results all the time, but I think we see it.
"We're recognizing when we see it, so the idea is that there are plenty of things to work on. We have to continue to improve to be at our best that we can in the playoffs. This week is an opportunity to do that."
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