When the Ravens embarked on a three-game homestand just before Thanksgiving, it was abundantly clear what they had to do to give themselves a realistic shot at making the playoffs. They were so far down in the standings with a 4-6 record that they had to sweep the homestand.
Now that they've completed that sweep, it's not quite as clear what they have to do in their remaining three games. They need wins, yes. But how many? And in which games?
Another three-game sweep would guarantee them a playoff spot, but they may not need to win all three to grab the No. 6 seed in the AFC field. Two wins might also do the trick, depending on what happens to the Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers, their chief competition for that wild card spot.
One way or another, the Ravens need to win at least two and possibly all three. And I'm thinking their upcoming contest against the Lions in Detroit will say a lot about their chances of getting that done.
In my opinion, it's the toughest of the Ravens' remaining games.
The Lions are a division-leading team with a big-play quarterback, Matt Stafford, and football's best receiver, Calvin Johnson. They put up a lot of points, especially at home, and frequently get into "track meet" games – not exactly the Ravens' sweet spot this year with their offense ranked in the bottom third of the league in yardage and points.
And let's face it, the Ravens have struggled on the road against everyone in 2013, as their 1-5 record away from M&T Bank Stadium attests.
After playing in Detroit, the Ravens will host New England on Dec. 22 and close out the season against the Bengals in Cincinnati on Dec. 29. Both opponents are looking like 2013 division winners, so those games won't be easy, either. But the Patriots aren't dominating opponents this year. They keep falling behind by large margins and rallying to win, an impressive but ominous trend.And now tight end Rob Gronkowski is injured and out for the year, a major setback. As for the Bengals, they may well have nothing to play for in the finale if they've locked up a division title and seed.
The Ravens said a lot about their resiliency by winning three straight games to climb back into the playoff race, but to make a definitive statement about their bona fides as a playoff team, they need to win Monday night in Detroit.
Surely you know that old proverb, "History repeats itself." I didn't think it was happening to the Ravens in 2013 when they dropped to 4-6, but the similarities between this season and 2012 are starting to mount.
Think about it. The Ravens lost key players to major injuries in 2012 and got healthy just in time to make a postseason run. Last year, it was Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs who came back from the brink. This year, it's tight end Dennis Pitta and receiver Jacoby Jones who are getting healthy and productive late in the season.
Also, the Ravens benefited from their share of fateful moments on their way to winning the Super Bowl last season – "Hey, Diddle Diddle" and the "Mile High Miracle," for starters. Now they have been visited by "unbelievableness" (just made up that word) yet again in their triple comeback win over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday.
Yes, they're still dealing with thorny issues, as were the 2012 Ravens when they lost four of five games down the stretch. This year, the issues have been so thorny that I think it's fair to say most national observers and quite a few fans gave up on the Ravens as serious championship contenders.
But get this: If they win in Detroit Monday night, the Ravens will be just one game behind their 2012 pace through 13 games. And you do remember how that season turned out.
When training camp began in July, Pitta was coming off a huge season and entering the last year of his original contract, set to cash in big time with another strong season. But when he suffered a serious hip injury, his opportunity seemed to flit away and even his future with the Ravens was in doubt.
Five months later, he returned to the field and played a key role in the Ravens' win over the Vikings Sunday. From watching him, it appears likely that he can pick up right where he left off as one of Joe Flacco's favorite targets. That makes him hugely valuable, especially to the Ravens.
Just in time, the Ravens are getting to see just how much they need him. That's good news for the Ravens and also for Pitta. Maybe his opportunity to cash in didn't flit away after all.