The cheering had barely subsided after the Ravens' win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday when an inevitable question bubbled up in the local football conversation:
Was that worth it?
The victory was immensely satisfying, especially to the Baltimore fans at M&T Bank Stadium, who spent the day trying to out-shout a larger-than-usual horde of towel-waving invaders from Pittsburgh. But the success came with a cost, as the Ravens dropped from No. 3 to No. 8 in the projected 2016 NFL Draft order with one game remaining until that order is finalized.
Considering the Ravens had already been eliminated from the playoffs and had nothing tangible to gain, you could make the case that the cons attached to the victory outweighed the pros.
But I won't be making that case.
In my opinion, the win over Pittsburgh was well worth it. In fact, I'll double-down on the notion and suggest a second straight win this Sunday in Cincinnati would be worth as much, if not more.
There are all sorts of reasons why winning checkmates any and all draft considerations.
For starters, it changes the depressing narrative that was forming as 2015 came to a close. Sunday's success put a smile on everyone's face in Ravenstown. No price tag on that. It also gave the Ravens an invaluable "BUT" clause, as in "they had a losing season BUT they swept the Steelers." No price tag on that.
If you buy the suggestion that the groundwork for 2016 is being laid now, think about the signal being sent to the locker room. The Ravens' players have taken the high road, continuing to practice hard, stay together and play hard, as opposed to disintegrating, as some losing teams do. Late-season wins over quality teams emphasize the value of the team-oriented approach. Nice lesson learned.
I'm aware a season-ending two-game winning streak might push the Ravens out of the draft's top 10, which is long way from No. 3. The difference between a 4-12 and 6-10 finish doesn't seem as big, admittedly.
But nothing is more important to the Ravens' prospects than beating the Steelers and Bengals. Games against those AFC North rivals compose a quarter of the Ravens' schedule every year. They're Baltimore's chief competition for division titles and playoff berths. It's crucial that the Ravens feel good about where they stand in both rivalries.
Sunday's win made it two years in a row that they've crushed the Steelers' dreams. A year ago, Baltimore knocked Pittsburgh out of the playoffs. This time, the Ravens pushed the Steelers to the brink of elimination.
While every season brings a fresh slate, I think it's a plus for the Ravens to have established the upper hand … and pretty depressing for the Steelers to have to admit it.
Beating the Bengals Sunday would be important for the opposite reason: The Ravens haven't done it much lately. They've lost four games in a row to Cincinnati and five of the past six. Their last win was almost 26 months ago. They're overdue to re-establish their bona fides in the rivalry.
It's been a disappointing season, but ending the campaign with back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati would send a clear message that the losing record, while deserved, is not the Ravens' idea of a referendum on their future.
As for the impact on their draft prospects, sorry, I've just never bought into calculating it during the season. I'm firmly in the camp of "whatever will be, will be." Put your head down, play 16 games, look up, see where you stand and deal with it.
As I've noted before, unless you've got the first pick and Peyton Manning is sitting there – and no one of that caliber is this year – what matters is HOW you draft, not WHERE you draft. You can draft a star or a bust with the first pick, the 12th pick, the 32nd pick, the 56th pick, etc. In a recent NFL.com article, four of the top 10 Rookie of the Year candidates for 2015 weren't even first-round selections.
Regardless of how they fare Sunday, the Ravens are still going to have their highest first-round pick since 2008, when they had the No. 8 selection, traded back, moved up and took Joe Flacco at No. 18.
If the Ravens' 2016 draft works out even nearly that well, no one will care or remember that they ended the season with a pair of wins.