Eisenberg: This Thing Isn't Over Yet

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If you believe, as I do, that Baltimore sports fans support the teams they love only slightly more than they loathe the teams they hate, it made for a verrrry satisfying night.

A night after ceding control of the division to the Steelers with a dispiriting loss in San Diego, the Ravens regained that control. If they win their two remaining regular-season games, they will capture the AFC North and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs, likely going in as the No. 2 seed. That would mean at least one home playoff game, no small thing for a Baltimore team that is 7-0 at home at 3-4 on the road this year.

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But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

While this thing Ray Lewis always calls "the journey" is down to a simple and straightforward equation – win and you're in – he calls it that because every NFL team's season is indeed a long, invariably strange trip through the unforeseen and unexpected.

In other words, this thing isn't over yet.

And if you think that now the rest of the season is going to follow some ordered course and go down as simply as it should, you haven't been paying attention.

Last weekend alone across the NFL, an undefeated team lost, a winless team won, and a whole host of games played out pretty much in diametric opposition to how everyone thought they would.

Honestly, the Ravens getting clobbered in San Diego was among the less surprising outcomes considering how well the Chargers suddenly are playing now that they're healthy. That doesn't excuse how poorly the Ravens played, but it was a tough spot.

The fact that the Ravens, who looked terrible, are already in the playoffs, while the Chargers, who looked awesome, remain a longshot is certainly ironic. But that underscores the point that this is indeed a long journey, and that what happens over the course of it, not just in individual games, is what matters most.

As much as the 49ers did the Ravens a favor Monday night, the Ravens did the hard work to earn these favorable late-season circumstances. They beat Pittsburgh twice. They made this a season in which they should finish ahead of the team that has caused them such heartache.

In Pittsburgh today, people are complaining that the league wouldn't let James Harrison play Monday night, and that Roethlisberger is injured, and that a few strange calls went against their team (true). That's what happens when the fates seemed aligned against you, for whatever reason. Ravenstown can relate.

There's no such angst in Baltimore this year, for a change. Yes, the Ravens have coughed up some games they should have won, but they also have done enough right to make their math kindergarten simple. Win and they're in.

So now comes the hard part, sealing the deal.

The Ravens have to beat the Cleveland Browns on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium, then also defeat the Bengals in Cincinnati on New Year's Day. Sounds easy on the surface: win two against teams they already have beaten this year.

But it won't be easy, especially that finale on the road. The holiday gift-giving season will be over, growing distant in the rear-view mirror. The Ravens will be on their own, on the road, in another tough spot, a place where they have struggled. The only certainty is it will be hard on the nerves, an epic civic sweat-fest. There's simply no other way.

John Eisenberg covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He 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.

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