If the Ravens absolutely, positively had nothing to play for Sunday, no incentive to win, Head Coach John Harbaugh could contemplate resting some starters and worrying only about getting healthy, turning the game against the Bengals into a de facto exhibition.
But there is a carrot dangling before them, a gain to be made, at least potentially, and that leaves Harbaugh and the Ravens no choice but to play it straight for the most part and make a reasonable attempt to win.
If the Ravens were to collect win No. 11 Sunday and the New England Patriots lose at home to the Miami Dolphins, the Ravens would jump ahead of the Patriots and secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC postseason field, relegating the Pats to No. 4. Their places are reversed as things stand now, the Pats at No. 3 and the Ravens at No. 4.
Picking up that one spot in the seeding order doesn't sound like much to play for; it would be more of an incentive if the Ravens had a chance to grab one of the first two seeds, which offer a first-round bye.
But the Ravens can't afford to dismiss the importance of possibly gaining that one spot. If they and the Patriots both win their first-round playoff games and then prevail again the next week against the top two seeds, the No. 3 seed would host the AFC title game.
In other words, if that scenario unfolds and the Ravens don't move up to No. 3 this weekend, they would find themselves right back at New England's Gillette Stadium for the AFC title game. Sound like fun?
But a title-game rematch would be held in Baltimore if the Ravens leapfrog the Patriots this weekend.
Of course, the Patriots have to lose at home to a 7-8 Miami team this Sunday for that to occur, and the odds on that are slim. The Pats have experienced exactly one home upset in the past three years, earlier this season to Arizona.
The chances of the top two seeds (Houston and Denver) succumbing in the divisional round also are slim, but I'm through saying something weird is never going to happen. The NFL has become so unpredictable that weird outcomes are routine.
No one thought the Ravens had any shot at hosting the AFC title game when they entered the postseason as the No. 5 seed in the AFC field two years ago, but if they hadn't blown a two-touchdown halftime lead in Pittsburgh in a divisional round game, that's exactly what they would have done, hosted the sixth-seeded New York Jets in the conference title game. Upsets littered the landscape that year and easily could again, so you're crazy not to try to climb as high in the seedings as you can.
Having said that, the Ravens' circumstances are such that they're also crazy not to try to get as healthy as possible for the playoffs. They can't fall any lower in the seedings now that they have wrapped up the AFC North title, so at least Sunday's game is a freebie in that sense, less urgent. They'll make no effort to get Ray Lewis back, and I also don't expect to see Anquan Boldin, who has a bruised shoulder. Why push it?
But as for starting Tyrod Taylor instead of Joe Flacco and giving other starters a day of rest, they simply can't plan to do that, not as long as they have something to play for.
As Harbaugh stated Monday, they also could stand to continue to build more positive momentum in the wake of their big win over the New York Giants. They had lost three straight games before that, raising serious doubts about their bona fides as a legitimate playoff team. They could benefit from another solid performance.
Sure, there's always a chance the game could disintegrate one way or another, as sometimes happens. The Bengals, locked into the No. 6 seed, have nothing tangible to play for, so there's no telling how they'll play it. Harbaugh might need to adjust as the game unfolds.
But going in, there's only one way to play it … try to win, like always.