This Is A Playoff Game
The Ravens are approaching Sunday's showdown as a playoff game.
The Bengals have no choice. Win, and they're in the playoffs. Of course, the Ravens have already clinched a place in the postseason dance. But, we certainly understand the importance of earning a bye and getting at least one home playoff game.
"It's going to be a war, man," said Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson when he was asked about the game in Cincy.
"They are fighting for their lives. We're fighting for the division. So it's going to be a playoff game," Johnson said.
Yes, we're fighting to win the AFC North, the toughest division in the league. It's the only division that has three teams that will finish with better-than-.500 records. Currently, the Ravens and Steelers are 11-4, while the Bengals are 9-6. And, AFC North teams' overall record against the rest of the NFL is a league best.
So, if you win the AFC North this year, you're damn good. We're trying to go 6-0 in the division, the best we've ever done. We've swept the Steelers and Browns and won the first game against the Bengals. The 31-24 victory over Cincinnati came five weeks ago. Baltimore jumped out to a 17-7 lead that eventually became 31-14 before the Bengals got within the final margin of seven Points with five minutes left in the game.
Different Ravens/Bengals Game
Because of the playoff ramifications, this is different from other Ravens/Bengals games. And, it's not like we haven't played the Bengals as best we could over the last few seasons. Last season, we played at Cincinnati in Game 2 after winning at the Jets in the opening Monday night game. The Bengals got us, 15-10, in that contest. Holding the Bengals without a touchdown, the Ravens led 10-9 with just under six minutes remaining in the game. Cincinnati kicker Mike Nugent's fourth and fifth field goals of the day made the difference in the last minutes of the game.
In the season finale (1/2/11) from a year ago, the Ravens, who had already clinched a playoff spot, sent the Bengals to a 4-12 record with a 13-7 victory.
This regular season ending is different. Both teams need a win. The Bengals have to win. We clearly understand the importance of gaining a bye and securing a home game. There's a lot on the line.
THIS IS A BIG GAME – BOTH TEAMS RECOGNIZE THAT! We haven't played the Bengals with this much at stake. There will be a different energy and vibe to this one.
We've had a couple of showdown games this season, and we fared pretty well: two victories over the Steelers, including the season-opening thrashing (35-7) and the Sunday night game at Heinz Field (23-20); the wins over Houston, the AFC South winner, and the Jets, plus the impressive triumph over the 49ers, winners of the NFC West, on Thanksgiving night.
The Bengals did beat three teams we did not: Jacksonville, Seattle and Tennessee. However, of their nine wins, only one – Tennessee (34-12) – came against a team with a winning record. In their five games against 2011 playoff teams (Pittsburgh twice, San Francisco, Houston and Baltimore), Cincy is 0-5.
Does this mean we're more battle tested than the Bengals? Maybe. We certainly have beaten teams considered among the NFL's elite, while they have not. They did, however, beat some teams that have sub-.500 records who stopped us.
I'll take the team that has found a way to beat the best in big games. That's what the Ravens have done. The Bengals have not done that yet. They'll have their chance Sunday at their home that will now be filled to capacity after selling the remaining tickets at a two-for-one sale.
Harbs And Ray
"We've worked hard to play in a regular-season game with this much meaning. We're ready for it, excited about it," John Harbaugh said earlier this week. Ray Lewis added his emphasis: "In our minds, this is a playoff game, and our reward for winning this one means some time to rest and a home game. Marvin [Lewis] will have them ready, but we'll be ready, too." Indeed we will be.
Watching Other Games
Two games we'll all be eyeing are the Bills at the Patriots, which will be played at 1 p.m. on Sunday, and, of course, the Steelers at Cleveland. Buffalo is out of the playoffs, but I think they'll battle to the end. They beat the Patriots, 34-31, earlier this season and thumped the playoff-hungry Broncos, 40-14, last Saturday. I like the aggressive way Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick attacks secondaries – and the Pats do own the NFL's worst defense this season, last overall and last against the pass.
The Browns impressed all of us on Christmas Eve when they didn't fold up tents when they trailed the Ravens, 20-0, midway through the third quarter. Cleveland has some fight left and will not go down easily against the Steelers, who stopped the Browns, 14-3, three weeks ago.
Let's be a feisty team representing Baltimore this Sunday. Let's beat those Bengals.
Happy New Year!
Talk with you next week.
Kevin Byrne, a Ravens senior vice president, has worked in the NFL for 32 years. Byrne has been with the Ravens since the start of the franchise in 1996. Earlier in his career, Byrne was the sports information director at Marquette University, his alma mater, when they won the 1977 NCAA basketball championship under coach Al McGuire.