Sunday's matchup with the Minnesota Vikings at M&T Bank Stadium is a classic "trap" game for the Ravens.
Behind them are wins over fellow AFC playoff contenders, a memorable defeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving, preceded by a thumping of the New York Jets. Ahead of them, beyond this Sunday, is a season-ending gauntlet of games against division-leading opponents, the Detroit Lions, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals.
So, there's tough stuff behind them and tough stuff ahead, but in between, like a delectable holiday dessert ready to be devoured, sits a home game against a disappointed opponent already out of playoff contention.
It's the very definition of a trap game, one that can spring the wrong kind of surprise if you're not careful.
The Vikings offer all sorts of ammunition for anyone wanting to dismiss their chances Sunday. They're the only NFL team that hasn't won on the road in 2013. Their defense is dead last in the league in points allowed per game. Neither quarterback who might play for them Sunday generates fear.
On paper, the Ravens should roll, especially at home. But they already have four losses to teams with losing records in 2013. Little comes easily for them, it seems. Meanwhile, the Vikings do have the best running back on the planet, Adrian Peterson, who can practically win a game by himself. And although their 3-8-1 record is lamentable, the Vikings seemingly are on the upswing, having lost just once in the past month.
I'm not saying that the Ravens are going to get caught in the trap, or even that they're susceptible. I'm just saying the trap is there to be avoided, especially if the bad weather forecast for Sunday crystallizes. That could favor the ground-oriented visitors.
Regardless, the Ravens said all the right things this week about not taking any opponent lightly.
"That's not going to happen," quarterback
"I don't believe our team has ever really looked at things like that," Head Coach John Harbaugh said, referring to caliber of opponents, scheduling quirks, etc.
It boils down to mental discipline, focusing on the present rather than what already happened or what lies ahead. That's good news for the Ravens. Mental discipline is traditionally one of their strengths. As ESPN's Jamison Hensley pointed out, under Harbaugh they're 16-0 at home against teams with losing records. I'd say that bodes well.
Aside from mental discipline, the Ravens also will need to bring their "A" game on defense Sunday, especially when it comes to tackling. They're No. 6 in the league against the run, a high ranking, but tackling issues have come up in a few games, and Peterson is adept at making people miss. It's a huge challenge.
Among the many issues that combined to put the Ravens in a hole in 2013,
The Ravens traded Anquan Boldin partly because they thought Pitta could take up the slack; he was one of Flacco's favorite targets in 2012. But he went down with a hip injury in training camp.
There's no disputing the impact of his absence. But after the past two games, it's fair to suggest
Jones rolled up almost 500 combined receiving and return yards in the wins over the Jets and Steelers. He contributed a 73-yard kickoff return, a 66-yard touchdown catch, a 37-yard punt return and a 34-yard reception, reprising his big-play role from the Super Bowl run.
The Ravens have been without that until now in 2013. Jones sprained a knee in the opener, sat out four games and took awhile to fully heal. But now that he's 100 percent, he's a colossal difference-maker.
If Pitta returns, the Ravens will finally be close to whole and it becomes easier to look back and see why they had a hard time.
The Steelers are playing the Miami Dolphins Sunday in a matchup of two of the Ravens' chief competitors for a wild-card playoff spot. Which team should Baltimore root for? It's a tough question. The Dolphins are tied with the Ravens at 6-6. The Steelers are a game back, but dangerous.
It doesn't seem to make sense to root for the team with the better record, but I think that's the right play here. A Miami win puts the Steelers two back of Baltimore with three to play. That's preferable. Get the Steelers out of the way and take your chances going forward with a Miami team you defeated earlier in the season, giving you the tiebreaker edge.