Few people circled the Ravens’ week 9 matchup with the Cleveland Browns as a special occasion when the 2012 schedule was released.
The Ravens haven’t lost to the Browns since 2007, so the game shaped up as a low-wattage affair, just about the nearest thing to a sure thing on the schedule.
Now that it is here, however, the game looms as especially crucial for the Ravens, so important that Head Coach John Harbaugh conceded last week it was a “must win,” very much circled in his mind.
Harbaugh generally avoids labeling any game as more important than another, adhering to the bromide about them all counting the same, so his admission about Sunday’s extra importance should be noted.
And he stuck to his story during Monday’s conference call with local reporters when I asked if he still felt the game was that big.
“In my mind, we need to win that game,” he said. “I’m standing by my words. I want to win that game.”
Why is Sunday’s date with the 2-6 Browns suddenly so important?
For starters, there’s no doubt the Ravens need to bounce back from their last game, the 43-13 drubbing they absorbed in Houston. Every contending team has bad weeks, but the key is to isolate them as brief aberrations, keep them from growing into ruinous month-long funks.
For the Ravens, this Sunday is the opportunity to isolate that Houston experience and begin putting it behind them.
They also need to play better, period. Even though their loss in Houston snapped a four-game winning streak, they weren’t playing well before the bye – by their own admission.
“We had some real concerns” coming out of Houston, Harbaugh said Monday, referring to the leaky run defense, the shaky pass defense, the uncertain run-pass balance and the rest of the laundry list that has fans fretting despite the team’s first-place standing.
“There are things we need to be doing a lot better,” Harbaugh continued Monday, and if they’re going to start doing those things better, Cleveland is a good place to start.
Yes, the Browns beat the Chargers in a rugged game Sunday and have won two of their last three, showing signs of life since their new ownership took over. But they’re still the Browns, headed for another losing season and likely last-place finish, which is the biggest reason Sunday is a “must win,” or more accurately, a “can’t afford to lose.”
The first law of NFL life is you need to take advantage of what the schedule gives you; there are so many tough games that you had better make the most of any that are slightly less taxing in any way, at least in theory.
Looking down the barrel of a brutal stretch that includes their annual home-and-home grudge match with the Steelers as well as a trip to San Diego and games against the New York Giants and Denver Broncos, both quarterbacked by red-hot Mannings, the Ravens are going to need all the wins they can get.
Against the backdrop, this week’s trip to Cleveland followed by a home game against the 3-4 Oakland Raiders on Nov. 11 are opportunities the Ravens simply can’t afford to waste.
If Baltimore fans took advantage of the bye weekend to gauge the condition of the Steelers, they saw a team that is coming together after a slow start; the Steelers put on a strong defensive show, something the Ravens would kill for, in beating the Washington Redskins. A week earlier, they rallied to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati.
Predictably, as the second half of the season nears, it appears the AFC North will boil down to the Ravens and Steelers yet again, with the games between them on Nov. 18 and Dec. 2 having a huge bearing on the outcome – yes, the same old, same old.
But for those games to matter as much as they always seem to, both teams have to take care of business in other weeks, especially when they’re given a strong chance to win.
Put all that together and you can see why Harbaugh has circled Sunday’s game in Cleveland. For his team, the stakes are huge.