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Ravens' Harbaugh hopes time change doesn't deter fans as Bengals pose threat to playoff spot

For several weeks now, the Ravens have maintained that they are only worried about themselves. They weren’t going to consume themselves with what other AFC wild-card hopefuls were doing. They weren’t going to fret over playoff scenarios or tiebreak formulas. They knew that if they just took care of business on their end, they’d get to where they want to go.

The Ravens’ single-minded focus has served them well to this point, so it was hardly surprising to see coach John Harbaugh adhere to it Tuesday when players returned to the Under Armour Performance Center after a 2½-day break to enjoy the holidays and recover from Saturday’s physical game against the Indianapolis Colts.

Since the last time the Ravens were together as a team, their two biggest threats for an AFC wild-card berth — the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills — both lost, further clearing up the path to the postseason. The Ravens also learned late Sunday that their regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium was moved from a 1 p.m. start to a 4:25 p.m. kickoff.

“I really don’t have an opinion about that other than that’s kind of tough for the fans. I’m sure they have New Year's Eve plans,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know what the considerations are with the league office or why they do what they do, and I really don’t care other than the fact that I hope our fans are OK with it. I hope they’re into it, I hope people get there. The people that have plans, I hope they give their tickets to somebody else so they get there. I want the place to be packed. I want the place to be packed and loud.

“I don’t think the NFL did us any favors by moving it back, but they don’t care about us. So we’ve just got to care about ourselves and take care of our own business. I think that goes for our team and our fans and our city. Let’s go win the football game. It’s going to take a 100 percent effort, it’s going to take everything we’ve got to win this football game. That’s what we plan on getting ready to do, and we’d sure like to have our crowd out there helping us.”

The NFL moved the Ravens-Bengals game, Buffalo Bills-Miami Dolphins game and Jacksonville Jaguars-Tennessee Titans game into the 4 o’clock hour, when the Los Angeles Chargers were already scheduled to face the Oakland Raiders. The Ravens (9-6), Bills (8-7), Titans (8-7) and Chargers (8-7) are the competitors for the two AFC wild-card spots, and the league wanted those teams to be playing at the same time Sunday to keep certain teams from being at a competitive disadvantage and to decrease the possibility of certain games losing significance in the playoff picture.

Of the four teams, the Ravens have the best playoff odds. They’ll qualify for the postseason with a victory or tie against the Bengals (6-9); or a Titans loss or tie against the Jaguars (10-5); or a Bills loss or tie against the Dolphins (6-9).

The Ravens and Titans are the only two teams who are guaranteed a spot if they win Sunday. If the Ravens win, they’ll secure the first wild card and the AFC’s fifth seed, which will earn them a matchup the following weekend with the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs.

“Obviously it's a great time of year, and it's fun watching football this time of year, too,” Harbaugh said Tuesday. “Hope the fans are enjoying it as well. We did a little bit of that. We also spent a lot of time preparing for Cincinnati. The extra day helped us. We had a little time with the coaches, but more than that, we spent our time getting ready for a very important day. We're excited about it. The players will be in this afternoon, and we'll start installing the game plan this afternoon.”

The Ravens are coming off a closer-than-expected 23-16 victory over the Colts in what would be best described as an incomplete effort. The Ravens had five drives of 10 plays or more, their most since 2011, but they were shaky at times in the red zone and they averaged just 3.2 yards per play in the running game.

Defensively, the Ravens struggled to get off the field late in the game and they didn’t get much pressure on Jacoby Brissett, who has been sacked more than any quarterback in the NFL. On special teams, they had a punt blocked and allowed a 34-yard kickoff return.

“There are a lot of things from this last week that we have to go look at and take a hard look at today and improve on,” Harbaugh said. “The good things you build on; the things you didn't do so well you try to improve and understand why they happened and try to play your best game next week. So, we'll just try to keep it small and try to do that this week as best we can.”

The Bengals showed Sunday that they haven’t mailed it in this season. Facing a Detroit Lions team that needed a win to stay alive for an NFC wild-card berth, the Bengals scored 20 second-half points to pull away for a 26-17 win at home.

The Ravens dominated the Bengals, 20-0, in the regular-season opener and Cincinnati has been dealing with myriad injuries. Among the Bengals on injured reserve are running back Jeremy Hill, wide receiver John Ross, tight end Tyler Eifert, linebackers Kevin Minter and Nick Vigil, and cornerback Adam Jones. Standout rookie running back Joe Mixon and middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict were also knocked out early in the Lions game with injuries.

However, the Ravens are under no illusions that Sunday’s game will be an easy one. The Bengals have won six of the past eight matchups between the two teams. They’ll also be playing for longtime head coach Marvin Lewis, who reportedly will part ways with the organization at the conclusion of the season.

“I think Marvin is a great coach,” Harbaugh said. “I always have utmost respect for Marvin Lewis as a coach and a person. He’s been nothing but gracious to us over the years. I think he does a great job. You look at how hard they play and how good they’ve been and what he’s done there over the long haul. To me, that’s a true measuring stick — what you do over the long haul. He’s done it. Nothing but respect. We expect that team to be highly motivated come Sunday.”

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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