The Ravens can lock up a playoff spot this weekend if they win and several other games go their way. They could also clinch a spot if they win their last two games, period, regardless of what any other team does.
They'll take it any way they can get it, of course, but it would be fitting if they clinched with a road win Sunday in Houston. Their improved performance away from M&T Bank Stadium is what has enabled them to become a more serious playoff contender in 2014.
Even if they beat the Cleveland Browns in their season finale next week in Baltimore, they'll just equal their home record from a year ago (6-2), when they failed to make the playoffs for the first time under Head Coach John Harbaugh. But a win in Houston on Sunday would give them a 5-3 road record in 2014, a marked improvement from a year ago, when they went 2-6.
A five-win road season would tie for their second-best ever, trailing only the six-win seasons they engineered away from home in 2000 and 2006.
Why are the Ravens faring better away from home this year?
They're certainly taking better care of the ball, avoiding the turnovers that especially doom you on the road. Remember Joe Flacco's five-interception disaster in Buffalo last September? The Ravens lost 29 turnovers overall a year ago; this year, with two games to go, they've only lost 17.
A strong running game also helps immeasurably on the road, enabling you to control the clock, keep the home offense on the sideline and take the crowd out of the game. The Ravens' running game was a total mess a year ago; remember when it couldn't punch in a game-winning score from a few yards out in Chicago? But this year, the Ravens' running game is the league's fifth-best.
The Ravens also have benefitted from their schedule this year. None of the four teams they've beaten on the road (Cleveland, Tampa, New Orleans, Miami) currently sports a winning record, while the three teams that have beaten them (Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh) are all well over .500 and would qualify if the playoffs began today.
But before you dismiss the Ravens' improved road record as merely a function of the caliber of their opposition, remember, last year the Ravens lost in Buffalo, Cleveland and Chicago to teams that didn't make the playoffs. This year, they're doing a better job of beating the teams they should beat.
Hey, the truth is ANY game is a challenge away from home. Road teams have a paltry .428 winning percentage across the NFL this year. Barely more than a quarter of the teams in the league (nine) have more road wins than losses.
I don't care who you're playing; it's tough out there.
The Ravens have usually been pretty good on the road, better than the league average, under Harbaugh, which made last year's falloff so surprising. A win on Sunday would complete their return to normalcy, giving them more road wins in the past month (three) than all of last season.
In dissecting how they became a playoff team again, if they do, that's where you start.
The Ravens certainly caught a break when the Houston Texans experienced so many injuries at quarterback that they're down to choosing between Case Keenum and Thad Lewis as Sunday's starter. (I expect Keenum, by the way.)
But the game isn't already over just because the Texans have issues under center. The quarterback isn't the key to their offense. They're No. 1 in the league in rushing attempts, known for trying to cram the ball down your throat with running back Arian Foster.
I'm sure the Texans will use that strategy Sunday. Aside from their quarterback's inexperience, they'll face a Baltimore rushing defense that's lacking its anchor, Haloti Ngata, who is suspended for four games for using a performance-enhancing drug.
The Ravens have held up well without Ngata so far, limiting Miami and Jacksonville to an average of 72.5 rushing yards over the past two weeks. That's lower than their per-game average with Ngata in the lineup. Rookie Timmy Jernigan has stepped up. Chris Canty is playing his best ball since joining the Ravens. Brandon Williams is having a breakout season. The interior linebackers, Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley, are solid against the run.
But we'll find out this week whether the Ravens really can get by without Ngata. The Texans are serious about running the ball, and with an unheralded quarterback, they're not going to take too many shots at the Ravens' injury-ravaged secondary. They're going to give the ball to Foster a thousand times (not literally) and hope for the best.
If the Ravens can control Foster to any degree, they'll be in good shape.