Ravens officials spent the bye week preparing for not only next Monday night's game against the New Orleans Saints, but for the final six-game stretch that will determine whether the team makes the NFL postseason.
With a 6-4 record, the Ravens are right in the middle of the AFC's muddled playoff picture. Eleven of the conference's 16 teams are at .500 or better. The Ravens' other three AFC North opponents are also at least two games over .500.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last week it will be a "dogfight to the end" as his team tries to return to the postseason after a one-year absence. History, though, is on the Ravens' side.
Eight times in team history, the Ravens were 6-4 or better after 10 games, and in seven of those seasons, they made the playoffs. The only exception was in 2004, when Brian Billick's team lost four of its final six games after starting 7-3 and finished with a 9-7 record.
With three games at home and three on the road, the Ravens will likely need at least four victories to be in solid playoff position at the end of the regular season. A 10-6 record doesn't guarantee a playoff berth, as the Arizona Cardinals found out last year. However, since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, just 10 teams with 10 or more victories were shut out of the postseason.
"Every win is important," Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "It's just like they always say, 'Any given Sunday.' In our division, there's a bunch of talented teams. I don't feel like there's any one superior team that's better than anyone else. It's going to be interesting down the stretch. Hopefully, we come out on top, and they keep on losing."
Here is the road that the Ravens will have to navigate:
Nov. 24 at Saints
Record: 4-5, first in the NFC South
Last meeting: Ravens beat the Saints, 30-24, on Dec. 19, 2010, at M&T Bank Stadium.
Why the Ravens could win: The Ravens will have had 14 full days since their last game to get healthy and prepare for one of the NFL's most explosive offenses. Meanwhile, the Saints will have played back-to-back games against physical teams — the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Saints have turned the ball over 18 times and their defense allowed 37 points to the Atlanta Falcons and 31 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Perhaps the return to the site of their Super Bowl XLVII triumph will conjure some magic for the Ravens.
Why they might not: How will the makeshift secondary slow Drew Brees, who throws for 313 yards per game? Who is going to deal with elite tight end Jimmy Graham? There's not a clear answer to either question. The Saints also have been dominant at home, winning 11 of their past 12 games at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans has also won 12 consecutive prime-time games on its home field, the first team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to accomplish that.
Nov. 30 vs. San Diego Chargers
Record: 5-4, third in the AFC West
Last meeting: Ravens beat the Chargers, 16-13, in overtime on Nov. 25, 2012, at Qualcomm Stadium.
Why the Ravens could win: They know that their best path to the playoffs is to win their final three games at M&T Bank Stadium, where they've outscored the opposition 130-53 this season. Believed to be a Super Bowl contender after a 5-1 start, the Chargers have lost three games in a row and injuries have taken a toll on their defense. Traveling to the East Coast to play 1 p.m. games has given San Diego problems.
Why they might not: Philip Rivers remains one of the game's best quarterbacks and his ability to get the ball out quickly could negate the Ravens pass rush, which has been relentless at home. The Chargers are unlikely to catch the Denver Broncos for the AFC West crown, so they'll view this as a huge game against another potential Wild Card competitor. San Diego should be much healthier in two weeks as multiple players, including running back Ryan Mathews and inside linebacker Manti Te'o are close to returning.
Dec. 7 at Miami Dolphins
Record: 6-4, tied for second in AFC East
Last meeting: Ravens beat the Dolphins, 26-23, on Oct. 6, 2013, at Sun Life Stadium.
Why the Ravens could win: They did it last year, much to the delight of thousands of Ravens' fans who took over the visiting stadium. Miami is much more effective running the ball than passing it, which bodes well for the Ravens who have been stout against the run. Miami's Ryan Tannehill was the only quarterback sacked more than Joe Flacco last year and the Dolphins just lost their starting left tackle Branden Albert (Glen Burnie) to a season-ending knee injury.
Why they might not: Miami has already beaten the Chargers and New England Patriots at home this season and Tannehill has shown steady improvement in his third NFL season. The Dolphins' defense has the ability to dictate the game with playmakers such as Cameron Wake and Brent Grimes. The Dolphins know that it's going to be tough to catch the Patriots in the AFC East, so a win over the Ravens would be big for their wild-card hopes.
Dec. 14 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
Record: 1-9, last in the AFC South
Last meeting: Jaguars beat the Ravens, 12-7 on Oct. 24, 2011 at EverBank Field.
Why the Ravens could win: The Jaguars aren't very good. If not for the perennially pathetic Oakland Raiders, the Jaguars would own the distinction of being the AFC's worst team. The Ravens have dominated subpar competition this year. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens rarely lose at home and they almost never lose to bad teams at home.
Why they might not: The Ravens decide to take an early holiday break and don't show up? In all seriousness, Gus Bradley's team plays hard and the Jaguars beat the first-place Cleveland Browns and gave the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers some issues in relatively close losses. First-round rookie quarterback Blake Bortles is gaining valuable experience each week.
Dec. 21 at Houston Texans
Record: 4-5, second in the AFC South
Last meeting: Ravens beat Texans, 30-9, on Sept. 22, 2013 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Why the Ravens could win: Ravens offensive coordinator and former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak will undoubtedly throw the kitchen sink at the Texans in this one. Houston is heading in the wrong direction under first-year head coach Bill O'Brien, losing four of its past five games and giving up 30 points or more in three of them. The Texans can run the ball with Arian Foster, but their passing game is poor and they struggle to stop the pass, too.
Why they might not: Foster is one of the league's most dynamic players and he's capable of putting the offense on his back. The Texans have turned their starting quarterback job over to Ryan Mallett, who has to be more dangerous than Ryan Fitzpatrick. J.J. Watt is the league's most dominant defensive player and it's scary to think what he could do if top draft pick Jadeveon Clowney is healthy and rushing from the other side. The Ravens might find out.
Dec. 28 vs. Browns
Record: 6-3, first in the AFC North
Last meeting: Ravens beat Browns, 23-21, at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sept .21.
Why the Ravens could win: If there is a playoff spot — or perhaps a division title — on the line in the regular-season finale, the Ravens' home-field advantage could prove pivotal. They haven't lost to the Browns in Baltimore since 2007. They've also won 12 of the past 13 meetings against Cleveland overall. Center Alex Mack's leg injury has hurt the Browns' offense.
Why they might not: These Browns are not doormats anymore. They proved that by beating the Saints and Steelers at home and blowing out the Bengals on the road. Quarterback Brian Hoyer has limited his mistakes and the defense, stocked with talent, makes plays all over the field. The Browns will also likely have star receiver Josh Gordon back after he served his suspension.
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