It's crazy how the Ravens are in exactly the same position as a year ago, needing to win their season finale, at home, against an AFC North rival, to reach the postseason.
The bitter memory of what happened a year ago (and the year before that) has Baltimore fans feeling jittery, for sure. Is another December disappointment possible? Well, sure. The Cleveland Browns are coming to town on a roll, led by a hot, young quarterback. They're dangerous, period.
Originally, when the schedule was released, it was a relief to see the Ravens playing someone other than the Bengals for a change in Week 17. It turns out, though, that the Bengals, who faded weeks ago, would be a preferable opponent with so much on the line.
But while the Browns deserve the praise they're receiving for being improved, the Ravens also are improved. They're a much more formidable team than the one that was eliminated in the final minute of last season.
My two cents, their across-the-board improvements significantly raise the chances of them departing from their recent history and scripting a happy ending to the regular season.
Put it this way: If they are who we think they've become in the past six weeks, they're a great bet to win Sunday. (Got that?)
Why such optimism? It starts with a top-ranked defense, and with their cornerbacks, who are more aggressive and physical this year, way better overall. The NFL remains a passing league, Ravens notwithstanding, but with Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr bringing their "A" games, opposing receivers simply aren't getting open.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Friday that solidifying the cornerback position has been an organizational "priority" for several years, and it's paying dividends now. When a defensive coordinator trusts his corners to hold up, he can unleash his blitz packages. The Ravens' Don (Wink) Martindale is doing just that, unloading on opponents with his complex, attacking schemes.
Throw in an improved run defense (up to No. 3 in the league from No. 15 a year ago) and, overall, the Ravens haven't allowed this few yards per game since 2008, the heyday of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. That's a serious comparison, and in recent weeks the defense has added the one piece of its puzzle that was missing – turnovers.
It was the defense that yielded late last year, and while anything can happen on a single play, it's hard to imagine this year's unit being so forgiving.
The Ravens' offense is an equal partner in the winning formula that has arisen. And the change from a year ago on that side of the ball is, in a word, profound.
It's not just that six (yup, six) rookies received significant playing time against the Chargers. The team's offensive philosophy has completely flipped since Jackson became the quarterback in Week 10.
As many have pointed out, the ground-oriented attack controls the line and the clock. But what's really crucial, at least in terms of avoiding a December disappointment, is how consistent the offense has become.
Last year's offense experienced some highs but was prone to devastating blackouts -- long periods when it struggled to produce a first down. In the first half of last year's finale, the Ravens came out flat and trailed the Bengals, 17-3, just before halftime. They gained 68 yards in the first two quarters and went 0-for-8 on third down.
Could that happen again? As noted, anything is possible. But the chances seem small with the ball in Jackson's hands and the team running so effectively week after week. The fact that Cleveland is No. 24 in the league in rushing defense further suggests this style of attack might work Sunday.
The Ravens have a lot going for them. They're way healthier than in any recent December, a huge consideration. Not one of their 53 players was even limited in Friday's practice. Talk about a sign.
They're also brimming with confidence and, no doubt, after two years of being asked about their inability to finish, entirely sick of the subject.
They might be in the same position as a year ago, but they're a different team and it's a different year. Very different.