In a Ravens locker room flooded with a mixture of excitement, frustration and relief late Thursday night, running back Ray Rice sent a message to those who had already forecast his team's demise.
"The Ravens are back," he said, swept up in the emotion of the team's biggest win all season.
Their postseason hopes on life support less than two weeks ago, the Ravens woke up Friday in the AFC's sixth-and-final playoff slot. A pulsating 22-20 victory over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving night, secured when Emmanuel Sanders dropped a potential game-tying, two-point conversion with a little more than a minute to go, gets the Ravens back to the .500 mark at 6-6.
Regardless of what happens Sunday with the AFC's four 5-6 teams, the Ravens will have possession of the sixth spot heading into their next game on Dec.8 against the Minnesota Vikings at M&T Bank Stadium, thanks to their 6-4 conference record. They also are within 11/2 games of the first-place Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) in the AFC North with one head-to-head matchup remaining.
"I feel the same way I felt about [our playoff chances] two weeks ago and four weeks ago — that we're in control of our destiny," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. "It's up to us to win games. I'm proud of our guys finding a way to win the last two games and finishing the way they have. … I feel like we're getting there. I feel like we're a really good football team, but you need to go out and prove it. You need to prove it every week."
In their two wins over a five-day span, the Ravens were far from flawless. They had redzone issues in both games, their run game remained mostly ineffective and their defense wasn't able to consistently get to the quarterback.
But at the very least, after weeks of experiencing the same issues and deficiencies, the Ravens are starting to gain momentum and resemble a team that is capable of finishing strong and playing meaningful football in late December and beyond.
"It just means that we are in the hunt," said Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. "Obviously, if we would have lost, we would have been out of it, and playing a bunch of meaningless games. But now it's just like the playoffs. We win and we continue to give ourselves a chance."
In the 19-3 victory over the New York Jets, the Ravens' defense played its most dominating game of the season. Against the Steelers, the offense came away with points on six of its seven full possessions. Kicker Justin Tucker and return man Jacoby Jones were big factors in both games, as was the once dormant down-field passing game.
"I most definitely feel like we're getting there," said rush linebacker Terrell Suggs. "We just got to stay the course. This is the fight we're in. At this time last year, we were well ahead in the division and had the division sewed up. … We definitely need to win out to guarantee us a spot. We got some tough ones coming up. We got four left and we pretty much need all four."
Following next weekend's matchup with the Vikings (2-8-1), the Ravens will play their final three games against the Detroit Lions (7-5), New England Patriots (8-3) and Bengals, all teams currently in first place in their respective divisions. Two of those games will be on the road, where the Ravens are just 1-5 this season and have been unable to overcome some of the same mistakes that they persevered through Thanksgiving night.
"I thought we played pretty well, to be honest with you. That's why I was so frustrated," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who was 24-for-35 for 251 yards and one touchdown, and didn't turn the ball over for the first time in five games. "We did so many things really, really well and put ourselves in so many positions to put points on the board and put a lot on there tonight. … You could taste it, and we just didn't convert a lot. I'm honestly pretty happy with how we played tonight and how we performed. We've just got to get better at those little things that are going to get us over the edge."
In the Ravens' last two games, they have reached the red zone eight times and have managed just one touchdown, on Smith's 7-yard catch in the first quarter against the Steelers. On 15 of their last 19 full drives, the Ravens have crossed the 50-yard line.
The good news is that the Ravens are consistently moving the ball after their offense so often spun its wheels earlier this season. But their failure to finish drives and settle for field goals — Tucker is 9-for-9 over the past two games — nearly cost them against the Steelers and is holding the offense back.
While Smith burned Pittsburgh for six catches, 93 yards and a touchdown, he lamented two drops that contributed to the Ravens finishing with field goals rather than touchdowns.
"I blame myself," Smith said after Thursday's game. "I don't look at Joe. I don't look at our defense, I look at myself. I needed to make some more plays and they were there. I need to make them regardless of the down or what the situation is. We need touchdowns, not field goals. I'm just glad we got the win."
Smith was hardly the only culprit. Right tackle Michael Oher committed three penalties that slowed drives. Flacco said he made a poor read on another play that cost the Ravens a touchdown.
"We've got to be better at it," Flacco said. "You're always going to make a couple of [mistakes]. We've just got to cut down on how many we're making."
Flacco and his teammates will get the weekend off before they return to the team facility on Monday and accelerate preparation for the Vikings. They'll do it knowing that that they are back in playoff position.
"I said it last year, the team that gets hot right about now is a team that gets a chance," Rice said. "Right now, it's looking good for us, but we have to continue to take care of business. No knock on any other team, but the Ravens have to take care of the Ravens. If we do that, we should be all right."
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