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With Tough Final Stretch Coming, Ravens Like Their Position


When the Ravens' schedule dropped in April, the conventional thought was that Baltimore needed to build some cushion in the AFC North before a brutal final four-game stretch.

Well, Baltimore finds itself atop the division, but in a tie with the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. So there's little to no room for error.

And, yes, the remaining schedule is still tough. The Ravens will travel to face the New England Patriots (10-2), Steelers (7-5) and Cincinnati Bengals (4-7-1). They'll host the Philadelphia Eagles (5-7).

But coming off a commanding 38-6 win over the Miami Dolphins, who entered as the hottest team in the AFC on a six-game winning streak, Head Coach John Harbaugh stood confident Monday.

"I'm excited to be playing them right now when it counts the most," Harbaugh said.

"What degree of a challenge is it? It's a big challenge. It's a huge challenge. We feel like we have just the men for the job in this room right here."

The Ravens' playoff picture can be summed up fairly easily.

They control their own destiny (but so do the Steelers). If Baltimore wins three of the final four games, including its matchup in Pittsburgh, the Ravens will win the AFC North no matter what anybody else does.

If the Steelers beat the Ravens on Christmas day* *and both teams finish with the same record, then more complex tiebreaker procedures will come into play.

The Ravens are also not out of the AFC wild-card race. The Denver Broncos currently have the sixth playoff spot, but they sit just one game ahead of Baltimore at 8-4 and have an even tougher final four-game stretch, at least on paper.

"We like the fact that we're in it. We like the fact that we're in a fight for the division championship," Harbaugh said. "That's our first goal – the starting point of everything we try to accomplish one week at a time. Now we have our toughest challenge."

As is the routine under Harbaugh, the Ravens aren't going to start looking down the line. They have a big boulder in their way already with the Patriots up next. New England is tied with the Oakland Raiders for the best record in the AFC (10-2).

"There's a lot of respect for New England," Harbaugh said. "Obviously, a lot of respect for [Head Coach Bill] Belichick and for Tom Brady and all of those players.

"They've got a great organization. They do a great job, obviously, year-in and year-out, because they're always at the top, and they've earned it. That's something that we've been honored enough to be in some big games against them over the years. We feel like that's a place we want to be, and we're excited about the opportunity."

For the first time all year, the Ravens got a glimpse of what their team can be when quarterback Joe Flacco catches fire and the offense clicks to support what has been a consistently dominant defense and kicking game.

"We're going to need to play our best football on Monday night up in New England to win that football game," Harbaugh said. "We do believe we have a chance to do that based on where we're at right now. That's what we're shooting for."

Harbaugh isn't the only one excited to see the Patriots up next on the schedule. After seeing an offensive breakout against the Dolphins, Flacco is ready for the next challenge as well.

"Now we have to go up into a hostile place in New England [where] we really enjoy playing," Flacco said Sunday. "It's going to be another important game in December up there on a Monday night, and it's going to be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to it, big time."

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