Just to be clear, the Ravens' playoff hopes do NOT depend on how they fare against the New England Patriots Monday night.
Yes, a win at Gillette Stadium would help their prospects immensely. But if they lose, they still control their playoff destiny. They would capture the AFC North if they win their remaining three games.
Regardless, I think the answer to an important question about the Ravens still could come Monday night.
Do they have their swagger back?
It's no secret their stock has sunk a bit since they won the Super Bowl almost four years ago. They've compiled a 30-30 record in regular-season games and made one playoff appearance in three seasons. They experienced their worst season (5-11) under Head Coach John Harbaugh in 2015, and earlier this season, they endured a four-game losing streak. Eight months ago, they had the No. 6 overall pick in the draft, a spot usually reserved for a less fortunate franchise.
In the wake of all that negativity, a not-so-positive narrative inevitably arose. The formerly powerful Ravens had lost their mojo, it seemed.
But the organization always believed it was a temporary condition more than a permanent slide, and in recent weeks, it's as if the Ravens have sought to erase that dubious narrative and bring the old one back. They've won four of their past five games. On Nov. 27, they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals for the first time in three years. Last Sunday, they destroyed a Miami team on a six-game winning streak.
The positive results have led to a mass rediscovery of the Ravens by the rest of the football world. They've vaulted higher in power rankings, earned high praise from national talking heads. With a star kicker, the league's top-ranked defense and an offense capable of exploding, they've drawn comparisons to some of the franchise's iconic teams. Asked if it would surprise him to see Baltimore go far in January, Phil Simms of CBS said no, not at all. Just like the old days.
Playing well in a primetime game in New England could go a long way toward validating the Ravens' surge as bona fide.
It's a big-boy game, for sure. Harbaugh called it "our toughest challenge" earlier this week. No setting in pro football presents a higher degree of difficulty. The Patriots have an .839 winning percentage at home since 2002, and they're even tougher in primetime. They haven't lost a Monday night home game since 2005.
The Ravens are feeling optimistic, but many teams have invaded New England with optimism for games on Thursday, Sunday or Monday nights, only to suffer a fate right out of New Englander Stephen King's horror fiction.
The Pittsburgh Steelers fell 18 points behind the Patriots at Gillette Stadium before losing by seven in the 2015 season opener. The Cincinnati Bengals absorbed a 43-17 beating in 2014. The Houston Texans lost, 42-14, in 2012. The Kansas City Chiefs lost, 34-3, in 2011.
A bad loss along those lines Monday night could erase many of the gains the Ravens have made lately as far as proving their mettle.
But substantive contenders don't get overwhelmed. The Seattle Seahawks actually defeated the Patriots on a Sunday night in New England earlier this season. The Denver Broncos built a 24-point lead in 2013 before succumbing to a furious New England rally. The Ravens have played about as well as any team in Gillette Stadium over the years, with several of the contests coming in primetime, including the 2012 AFC championship game, which the Ravens won decisively on their way to a Super Bowl triumph.
Although the dominant Patriots always bristle with supreme confidence, I'm guessing they're less excited about seeing the Ravens come to town than some other teams.
I understand that pro football is a bottom-line business without moral victories, and that the Ravens care only about winning Monday night. But win or lose, if they compete evenly with the favored Patriots and take the game down to the wire, it could go a long way toward indicating that they're becoming a tough out again, a winning team to reckon with – exactly the kind of statement they wanted to make in 2016 after the disappointment of 2015.