It seems that the Ravens have said they are in a "must-win" situation for the last few weeks, but Sunday's matchup with the Oakland Raiders truly epitomizes that position.
If Baltimore (8-7) wins at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, a playoff ticket is stamped. If the Raiders continue their successful romp through the AFC North, the Ravens will be sitting on their couches until next season.
The Ravens were in a similar situation last week, although they would have needed some help from other teams even if they did beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. A 23-20 loss, which was marred by 11 penalties for 113 yards and a dropped sure touchdown pass by wideout Derrick Mason, put their future even more in the balance with a finale to decide their own destiny.
"The things that we came out of the last week – and really throughout the course of the season, some of the challenges we've had – the things that cost us victories are the things that we need to keep chasing to turn around," said head coach John Harbaugh. "And the things that we have done well that have created victories for us and put us in the position to have a chance to play for the playoffs Sunday afternoon are the things we have to keep building on."
The Ravens were also in a similar situation last year.
Winning nine of their last 11 games down the stretch of the 2008 campaign, the Ravens won their postseason position with a Week 17 thumping of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Again, it was a win-and-in scenario.
"We want games like this," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who went on to become the first rookie signal-caller in league history to win two playoff games in his first season. "They're a lot of fun to play in. Like I said, we approach it like any other game. It's just as important as any other game on the schedule was this season. We've just got to go out there and have a confident mindset and go out there and play a physical football game."
Still, the Ravens cannot afford to muck up the game with needless penalties, which included three personal foul flags against Pittsburgh.
In all, this year has seen the Ravens lose an NFL-high 1,057 yards due to penalties. With 11 more in California, it would set a new franchise record.
Needless to say, the Ravens have been drilling home the message of wiping out needless mistakes.
"It's been a huge priority, and we're all very concerned about it," Harbaugh noted. "We're not happy about it. It's something that I think we all acknowledge has got to be corrected. Our players are determined to do it. They're accountable; they're accountable to do it. We can be the kind of team that we're going to be. We are going to be a certain kind of team. Everybody in this organization understands what we're building here – the type of football team we're becoming. We've seen glimpses of it as we have gone through this process over the last two years.
"But there's no doubt that the players who are here and who are going to remain here are going to play that kind of football. And our guys are committed to doing that, and the coaches are committed to doing it and all the way through the organization."
The Raiders (5-10) are no slouches, and Baltimore knows it.
The Raiders have taken care of business against several playoff contenders.
The Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals and Steelers have all fallen victim to a chippy Oakland team, with quarterback Bruce Gradkowski putting together a two-minute comeback to fell Cincy, 20-17, on Nov. 22, and then throwing three fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 27-24 upset of the Steelers on Dec. 6.
For those scoring at home, the Steelers and Bengals have both beaten Baltimore.
But, the Raiders won't have the services of Gradkowski, whose right knee injury will keep him out and open the door for backup Charlie Frye to start.
"Even if we were not in this circumstance we wouldn't overlook the Raiders," Mason stated. "They're a very good team. Obviously, they're very good on defense. On offense, they've been through their quarterback shuffle. I think they're on their third quarterback now, but they're still playing good. They've beaten some very good teams. So, whether we were in this situation or not, we would not overlook a very good Oakland team, because they've beaten some pretty good teams."
Not only would a win in Oakland mark the Ravens' sixth and second-consecutive postseason berth, it would also set another kind of franchise record.
Baltimore has never won a season-ender on the road in its 14-year history, but conversely, the Ravens have never lost to a sub-.500 team and boast a 9-9 record all-time on the road under Harbaugh's leadership.
"Our guys know they're going to play a football team that's very dangerous, a football team that has proven they can beat anybody in this league," Harbaugh said. "We're going to their place, and this is their last game of the season. They're going to put their best effort out there, but we've got more at stake. We've got an opportunity to make the playoffs; we've got an opportunity to get in the tournament. To me, that's motivation enough, and I'm sure our guys will be ready."