The winner of Sunday's Ravens-Bengals game will have sole possession of first place in the AFC North with two games remaining in the regular season.
That makes the importance of the matchup obvious, whether you call it a must-win, do-or-die, or make-or-break. Head Coach John Harbaugh isn't trying to find a term that fits.
"Anybody can put whatever label on it that they want," Harbaugh said. "That's not really my mission – to put labels on it and name it with any particular phrase."
However, despite the game's importance, a defeat won't ruin Baltimore's path to the playoffs. In fact, according to the New York Times playoff simulator, the Ravens would still have a 91% chance of making the playoffs if they lose to the Bengals but beat the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers to end the season.
Yet winning the division is always a priority for the Ravens because it secures an automatic playoff berth and at least one home postseason game. Sunday's game will have a playoff-type atmosphere because both teams now what's at stake. It's a great experience for a young player like rookie safety Brandon Stephens, who is growing rapidly and playing well since becoming a starter midway through the season.
The Ravens haven't forgotten losing to the Bengals, 41-17, in Week 7 at M&T Bank Stadium. This is Baltimore's chance to turn the tables, in a game that's huge for both teams.
"We know what's at stake and we're up for the challenge," Stephens said. "We get another chance to compete with this team."
Hollywood Can Smell 1,000 Yards, But His Focus Remains on Playoffs
Marquise "Hollywood" Brown already has a career-high 909 yards receiving on 80 catches and could reach 1,000 yards Sunday. That's a milestone Brown has coveted, but his main focus is on helping Baltimore get back to the playoffs. The Ravens made the playoffs in each of his two previous seasons, and it's a habit Brown doesn't want to break.
"I feel like I'm going to get it, so I'm really just trying to win, trying to make these playoffs and make this run," Brown said.
As the team's primary deep threat, Brown had an unusual stat line against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday – a season-high 10 catches but only for 43 yards for just a 4.3-yard average. Recent opponents have blitzed Baltimore frequently, but they're still making it a priority to keep Brown from beating them deep. Corners have backed off Brown at the line of scrimmage, safeties continue to roll coverage toward him, so against Green Bay, Brown worked a number of underneath routes to get open.
However, don't think any coverage can negate Brown as a deep threat. He's one of the NFL's fastest players, and his ability to track the football in the air is exceptional. He says the deep success is coming.
"I feel I can get behind anybody, no matter how far back they play," Brown said. "However they want to play it. We're going to connect on it eventually."
'Hollywood' Understands Why He Wasn't Targeted On Two-Point Conversion
Baltimore's failed two-point conversion attempt against the Packers has been dissected endlessly, including Brown being open in the back of the end zone. However, Tyler Huntley had already rolled to his right with his eyes on the primary target, tight end Mark Andrews.
Had Huntley been able to hit an imaginary pause button, he would have seen Brown open behind the play and could have pivoted to him as the target. But in the real world, at game speed, Brown said it was difficult for Huntley to do that.
"I felt like it was a good play," Brown said. "Mark was hot. We designed the play for him. But they made a good play. The dude came down, and he made a good play on the ball. I popped open late, but I don't think [Tyler Huntley] could see me behind the O-linemen."
Count Brown among those who backed Harbaugh's decision to go for two. He also loved the fact that Harbaugh asked players for their input.
"It just shows what type of coach Coach is," Brown said. "He lets us be involved in decisions, and he trusts us, and we trust him. So, it's like a family atmosphere here. We're going to win with each other; we're going to lose with each other."
Kevin Zeitler Feels He's Having His Best Season Yet
Injuries have forced the Ravens to make moves on the offensive line all season, but Kevin Zeitler has been a mainstay at right guard all 14 games. Zeitler has not given up a sack or a quarterback hit this season, and many believe this has been his best season.
In his 10th season and first with the Ravens, Zeitler agreed that it's been his best season yet, but refused to take all the praise for his strong play.
"I think I have to give a lot of credit for that to having Lamar [Jackson] back there, [Bradley] Bozeman at center, all the tackles I've played with on the right side this year," Zeitler said. "We've gelled very well, and I definitely can't do it alone. I have to thank them all a lot."
The Bengals had five sacks against Baltimore in Week 7 and Zeitler (a former Bengal) says it's imperative that Baltimore protects its quarterback better on Sunday, whether it's Jackson or Huntley.
"They have a lot of depth along the D-line, and obviously, they have a lot of talent, too," Zeitler said. "We know it's going to be an excellent challenge for us, and we're going to have to make sure we bring our A-game."