Ravens coach John Harbaugh gave his players two days off after their 23-16 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday so they can enjoy Christmas with their families and recover physically ahead of a game that could define the team’s season.
If given the opportunity, though, several of the Ravens insisted they would have happily returned to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday for a chance to secure an AFC wild-card spot and a berth in the postseason.
“One game to go to make it to the playoffs,” Ravens second-year outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “Let’s go out there and give them all we’ve got. We’ve been through 15 tough games — let’s do it.”
After sweating out a victory over the Colts with a late defensive stand in the red zone, the Ravens breathed a sigh of relief and then spoke excitedly about the next challenge that lies ahead. If the Ravens beat the Cincinnati Bengals (6-9) next Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, they’ll be in the playoffs for the seventh time in 10 seasons as the AFC’s fifth seed and the first wild-card team, which would mean a first-round matchup against the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs.
“We’ve been in this situation a bunch of times,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I keep saying that I think we’re a very excited and very confident football team. We’ll be itching to get back out there on Sunday and to get the game underway, but we’ve got to go about our business the right way, continue to do what we’ve been doing, and I think we’ll be all right. But it’s a tough team we’ve got coming in here next week. We all know that.”
The Ravens have said all along that they are 100 percent focused on what they have to do, so predictably, their only thoughts Saturday evening were on having to beat a banged-up Bengals team playing out the string. However, they learned Sunday that there are other routes to the playoffs if they were to fall to the Bengals, who played spoiler Sunday with a home win over the Detroit Lions.
The Ravens would also make the playoffs if the Buffalo Bills, who were beaten by the top-seeded New England Patriots Sunday to fall to 8-7, lose at the Miami Dolphins next week. The Ravens also could get in if the Tennessee Titans, who dropped to 8-7 with a loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, are beaten at home in their regular-season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Any way you look at it, the Ravens would have almost certainly signed up for a win-and-in scenario in Week 17 at home against the Bengals, as far back as the summer when they were losing key players to injuries or retirement at a dizzying rate. And they surely would have accepted that fate heading into their Week 10 bye, when they had lost five of seven games to fall to 4-5 and their offense was ranked among the worst in the league.
They’ve since won five of six games and their offense, while it doesn’t always look pretty, has been one of the highest-scoring units in the league in the second half of the season. The Ravens are averaging just under 30 points over the past six games. In Saturday’s victory over the Colts, the Ravens had five drives of at least 10 plays, their most since the 2011 season.
“We’ve probably known since the bye that 10 wins would get us in, so we had to go six out of seven, however we did that. We’re just playing well as a team,” Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. “All three phases are playing well off of each other. We are playing good complementary football, and not turning the ball over. The blocked punt was unfortunate at the end of the game, but that’s what good teams do. They find a way to win, especially in December. Everything on the line against the rival, we are excited. This is a great opportunity for us, and that’s all you could ask for. Week 16, have a chance to get in the playoffs, we are excited and ready to get back to work.”
It’s fitting for the Ravens that they might have to get through the Bengals to return to the playoffs after a two-year absence. In recent years, the Bengals have given the Ravens more problems than any other team. Heading into this season, Harbaugh’s team had dropped six of seven games to Cincinnati.
That included the 2013 regular-season finale when the Ravens went to Paul Brown Stadium needing a victory and help to get to the postseason for a chance to defend their Super Bowl title from the previous year. The Ravens got neither, losing to the Bengals, 34-17, and missing the playoffs for the first time in Harbaugh’s tenure.
The Ravens started this season with a 20-0 victory over the Bengals. That began a nightmarish year for the Bengals, who reportedly will part ways with longtime head coach Marvin Lewis after the regular season. However, the Ravens aren’t fooling themselves with the idea that the Bengals will lay down Sunday. The Ravens and Bengals certainly don’t share the animosity that the Steelers and Bengals do, but the rivalry runs plenty deep.
“Next week is going to take a perfect effort,” Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Everything that we busted or made a mistake on in the first 16 weeks, we have to look at that and nip it in the bud so we can play lights out next week. It is going to take a phenomenal effort on our part next week. We are putting all our eggs in one basket. Everything is on the line to play a division foe. They are going to come in and be ready, and we have to do everything with our job to make sure we are ready.”
Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley acknowledged after Saturday’s game that the onus will be on the team’s veterans who have been through playoff battles before to make sure the younger guys understand the task at hand and prepare themselves accordingly.
To that end, Harbaugh decided to give his team a little extra break heading into the game. Players won’t be due back in the building until Tuesday afternoon and they won’t practice again until Wednesday.
“They’re going to get three to four days of really good recovery time,” Harbaugh said. “We need to have our best week of practice, and as a football team, that’s what we’ll look at. If we have our best week of practice, then we have a chance to play our best football. … We’re going to need to play our best to win. We’ll need our crowd, the fans. We’re going to need everything to make the playoffs.”