The schedule says the Ravens are playing the Oakland Raiders Sunday, but really, the game is Baltimore against Baltimore. When the Ravens look in the mirror, they see the only team that can knock them out of the AFC playoff race.
The Raiders? They can't do it without help. Yes, they have some positive attributes that have helped them upset a few playoff-caliber teams – athletic personnel, a shutdown corner, a strong-legged kicker, a solid running game – and they'll be more competitive with veteran Charlie Frye at quarterback instead of mega-bust JaMarcus Russell. (Frye passed for 333 yards last week in Cleveland but also threw three picks.) But they're 5-10 for a reason. They're a beatable, lower-tier team. And one thing the Ravens have done all season is handle such opponents.
It's a tougher game than, say, a visit by Detroit, but if the Ravens play smart and limit the penalties that were so damaging in Pittsburgh last week, they should win. They're actually playing pretty solid football if you take away the problems they're causing themselves. Their defense is ranked third in the league and played well enough to beat the Steelers. Their offense, with Ray Rice leading the way, always seems to score enough to keep games competitive.
Do those units have issues? Sure. The downfield passing game disappears at times. The rush defense has been more yielding than usual. But look at the big picture. In how many games have the Ravens just flat-out gotten whipped? Not many. They were solidly beaten in Cincinnati and Green Bay, and the Vikings hammered them early, but that's about it. Otherwise, they've played tough, back-and-forth games, often against elite opponents, with narrow margins of victory – the kinds of games you can lose if you're somewhat self-destructive.
Head Coach John Harbaugh ordinarily is loath to publicly disparage his team, but he has been frank this week, conceding that the penalty habit had become "irritating" and something he "wasn't proud of." After former Colts coach Tony Dungy called his team out on NBC, saying the Ravens "didn't play smart" in Pittsburgh, Harbaugh didn't leap to a bristling defense. He nodded in agreement. "We have to get past it," he said.
But Harbaugh has never been more on-point than when he said simply, "It's up to us," Boy, is that true now. If they play one relatively smart game Sunday -- a big "if" with the Ravens leading the league in penalty yardage – they'll find themselves where they wanted to be all along, in the playoffs. But if they reprise their troubles, they could fall short, with only themselves to blame.
The players have spent the week having their heads analyzed as everyone seeks to get a grip on the penalty issue. What has caused it? My two cents, you can't paint with a broad brush. It's just too easy to say there's an absence of discipline. Sometimes, it's a technique issue. (Illegal contact.) Sometimes it's just not thinking. (Personal fouls after the whistle when the offense is in field goal range.) It's fair to hold the coaches accountable because they're in charge, but I blame the players more.
Having said that, I think it's ridiculous to suggest it happens because the players don't care – an idea I've heard a lot since TV cameras caught Haloti Ngata, Derrick Mason and Terrell Suggs smiling after they made big mistakes Sunday. If a career of covering sports events has taught me anything, it's that the way things look on TV often bear little resemblance to the way they really are. You can't jump to conclusions.
The normally lighthearted Mason was infuriated by the suggestion that he didn't care, and I didn't blame him. Remember when he played with one arm last year and caught a touchdown pass in Dallas? You won't find many guys who routinely play through more pain than Mason.
Are the players paid whether they win or lose? Sure. But if you think that means they don't care, you should spend a game on the sidelines, watching the action up close. It's violent. It's fast. The players put themselves at risk physically. They're out there bashing each other's heads in. Those who don't care get carted off.
To play smart Sunday, beat the Raiders and advance to the playoffs, the Ravens need to do a few things – concentrate better, stay cooler under pressure, stick to technique. But "care more" isn't on that list.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.