Just when you thought stopping Peyton Manning and the high-powered Indianapolis Colts offense heaped enough pressure on the Ravens, the unfolding AFC playoff race has piled on even more.
Their Sunday night clash in Indianapolis could be the most pivotal game remaining, even more than their Dec. 26 grudge match with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If the Ravens (8-5) end the regular season tied with the Denver Broncos for the sixth and final AFC wild-card spot -- as has been the case for the past three weeks -- how the team fares against the Colts could decide its playoff fate as a result of the third tiebreaker (common games).
Because the Ravens and the Broncos don't face each other head-to-head and assuming they would still have the same conference mark, their record against common opponents would be the deciding factor. They both play the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins and Colts.
At this point, the Ravens can't afford to lose any ground in that category because they are 1-2 against those teams (with the Colts and Dolphins remaining) and Denver is 2-1 (with the Chiefs and Colts left).
Asked about the countless scenarios and tiebreakers yesterday, Ravens coach Brian Billick cut to the heart of the matter.
"It's easy for us: There are no scenarios. It's 'we've got to win to get in,' " Billick said. "Then we'll go wherever they want to send us. For us, it's simple. This is a playoff for us."
Of the five teams vying for the AFC's last two wild-card spots, the Ravens have the toughest schedule to end the regular season. They play two division champions on the road (Indianapolis and Pittsburgh) before returning to meet the struggling Miami Dolphins at home.
The New York Jets (9-4), the current fifth seed, also face two division leaders (New England and Seattle) but both are at home. The Broncos (8-5), Jacksonville Jaguars (7-6) and Buffalo Bills (7-6) only play one winning team the rest of the way.
If the Ravens reach the playoffs, the next two weeks would serve as a primer. As a wild-card team, they might have to travel to Indianapolis for the first round and Pittsburgh in the next one.
"I'd just soon win out and be disappointed that 11-5 doesn't get in rather than hope 9-7 does," Billick said. "That means each game is a playoff, which is fine because we're going to be battle-tested when it comes to it. And it will be in two places -- Indianapolis and Pittsburgh -- that we very likely will go back to. So here we go."
The Ravens' playoff run will include an increased role for Jamal Lewis.
The defending NFL rushing champion returned Sunday after missing two games with a sprained right ankle, playing the first half and gaining 32 yards on eight carries. Billick said Lewis could have handled more but decided to sit him given the Ravens were en route to a 37-14 blowout victory over the New York Giants.
"He came out of it well," Billick said. "He pushed it pretty good and got a couple of those carry-a-couple-guys-type runs. It was kind of like a preseason game where I had seen enough, we didn't need him and it was probably better that he not push past that."
Lewis is scheduled to be on the field for two-thirds of the offensive plays Sunday on the RCA Dome's hard Astroturf field. That leaves the rest for backup Chester Taylor, who has run for consecutive 100-yard games and has just 9 fewer yards rushing than Lewis for the season.
"I think he's ready for 40 to 45 snaps," Billick said of Lewis. "If he has to go 60 snaps, he will."
How well the Ravens control the clock running the ball will dictate how much time the ball is in the hands of Manning.
The front-runner for the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award, Manning has completed 68.9 percent of his throws for 3,919 yards. He needs three touchdown passes to break Dan Marino's 20-year-old record of 48.
Billick said keeping Manning from achieving that mark will not be used as motivation for the Ravens, who have the NFL's seventh-ranked pass defense.
"If all 48 came against the Baltimore Ravens, then I'd probably feel a little bad about it," Billick said. " So I don't know if that's a factor.
"He's a phenomenal, elite quarterback who is having a history-breaking year. He's been very impressive to watch. He does it in a way that we have not seen for quite a while."
Down the stretch
With Pittsburgh, New England and Indianapolis having clinched division titles and San Diego holding a two-game lead in the AFC West, here's a look at the remaining schedules for the five teams in the mix for the two AFC wild-card spots.
Team (W-L) AFC Week 15 Week 16 Week 17
N.Y. Jets (9-4) 7-4 Sea. (7-6) N.E. (12-1) at St. L. (6-7)
Ravens (8-5) 5-4 at Ind. (10-3) at Pit. (12-1) Mia. (2-11)
Denver (8-5) 5-4 at K.C. (5-8) at Ten. (4-9) Ind. (10-3)
Jacksonville (7-6) 5-5 at G.B. (8-5) Hou. (5-8) at Oak. (4-9)
Buffalo (7-6) 4-6 at Cin. (6-7) at S.F. (2-11) Pit. (12-1)