OWINGS MILLS - The Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots are not in the same division. But to both teams, this has become a division-like rivalry.
The Ravens beat the Patriots in the AFC championship game last season on their way to a Super Bowl title. The year before, New England beat Baltimore in the AFC championship game to advance to the Super Bowl.
Sunday's game in Baltimore will mark the seventh time the Ravens and Patriots have played since 2009. Three of those meetings have been during the playoffs. But these games always have a playoff-type feel to them regardless of whether they're during the regular season or postseason.
This game will be no different, especially with everything that is on the line for both teams.
"To me, rivalries - to use that term - are defined by how important the games are and what is at stake and how good the games are," coach John Harbaugh said. "They have always been big games. And fortunately, we have both been in the hunt all those years, so there has been a lot riding on it, this year as much as ever.
"So it's a big game for us for that reason. But without looking back too much, it's all been great, but it's all history now. It really doesn't have that much of a bearing - even game-plan-wise - on this game. This game stands alone, and this is really the only one we are thinking about."
At 8-6, the Ravens lead the 8-6 Miami Dolphins and the 7-7 San Diego Chargers for the second AFC wild-card spot. They are also in a good position to win the AFC North. But a loss to the Patriots could drastically change Baltimore's standing.
If the Dolphins win and Baltimore doesn't, Miami will move into the second wild-card spot with one game left in the regular season. The only way for the Ravens to move back into the second wild-card spot at that point would be to beat the Cincinnati Bengals next week and have Miami lose to a New York Jets team that is just 6-8.
At the same time, the Ravens can win the AFC North and secure at least one home playoff game by winning their last two games. But at 9-5, the Bengals can clinch the AFC North with a win over the 4-9-1 Minnesota Vikings and a Baltimore loss to New England.
"It feels like a playoff game," offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said.
But there are implications for the Patriots, too.
New England is 10-4, leads the AFC East by two games over the Dolphins and is in position to get a first-round bye in the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
However, Miami can win the AFC East if it wins its last two games and the Patriots lose their last two.
The Bengals and the 9-5 Indianapolis Colts could also jump New England for the No. 2 seed with wins and a Patriots loss to the Ravens.
A New England loss would also give Baltimore an outside chance at moving into the No. 2 seed, although the Ravens would still need to win next week and have the Patriots lose next week for that happen.
But this game is important to New England for other reasons, too.
The Patriots want revenge on Baltimore after the Ravens' win over them in the AFC championship last season.
"I'll put it this way, there would be no better feeling than us beating them Sunday and ... we eliminate their season right there," Patriots safety Devin McCourty told reporters in New England. "For me and a lot of my teammates, there'd be no better feeling."
New England can't eliminate Baltimore even with a win, but it would put the Ravens in a difficult position.
For Baltimore, the game will likely come down to how much it can take advantage of a poorly ranked Patriots defense and also to how much it can limit quarterback Tom Brady and the New England offense.
"Since I've been here, we've played them [often]," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Even early in my career, we've played them most of the years and in the playoffs, and we've both been good teams and vying for playoff spots and trying to win playoff games against each other."
This is just another one of those critical matchups.