With the AFC North crown and the home playoff game that comes with it wrapped up, the Ravens have little to play for Sunday at Cincinnati.
That leaves coach John Harbaugh facing the dilemma of how to approach the regular season finale. It wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the team hadn’t faced such significant health problems all year with numerous major injuries to key contributors. But it has, and protecting their players in preparation for the playoffs is a concern for the Ravens.
Now that the only thing left to be decided is whether Baltimore can move up from the fourth to the third seed, Harbaugh has some mental juggling to do.
Harbaugh needs to decide whether to sit some guys completely, or perhaps rest them if the result of the match-up at Cincinnati is in hand.
“It’s definitely a consideration,” Harbaugh said. “But the biggest thing is that you can’t play this game at half-speed. You’ve got to play this game at full-speed and our guys are going to play the game full-speed to win the game.
“How that type of thing would shake out is definitely a consideration, but I would expect it to be a tight game all the way through. These are two evenly matched teams and it’s going to be a highly competitive game.”
Harbaugh sees plenty of incentive to win, however.
“That’s how you improve, that’s how you get you better,” he said. “Momentum, sure it’s a good word. What does that mean exactly? It means that we’re improving. We always say either you get better or you get worse. Sometimes you’re getting better and it doesn’t show up in the results all the time. I think we recognize it when we see it.
“The idea is we have plenty of things to work on, and we’ve got to continue to improve to be the best we can in the playoffs. This week is an opportunity to do that.”
The one tangible incentive is moving up to the third seed, which would give the Ravens the chance to host the AFC Championship game should the top two seeds lose in the second round.
Baltimore can rise to third with a win over the Bengals and a Patriots loss to the Dolphins. The Ravens will play the Bengals again in the first round if they move up to third, as Cincinnati has been locked in to the sixth seed. The Colts would visit Baltimore if the Ravens remain fourth.
At least the Ravens head into next week with their woes behind them, coming off their first victory this month and a convincing one at that.
“It was our best overall performance, I think,” Harbaugh said. “It was the best we’ve done at putting all three phases together and playing well. We blocked, we tackled, our playmakers made plays. We didn’t turn the ball over. We didn’t do the things that cost us and hurt us like we did in the other three games. That’s probably the difference.”
The Ravens made it out of the win over the Giants without any major injuries. Wideout Anquan Boldin left the game with a shoulder bruise and the team will monitor his progress, but that’s pretty much it.
The team also announced Monday that a few thousand tickets for the Ravens’ Wild Card game will be on sale to the public beginning this Friday at 10 a.m. The contest will be at M&T Bank Stadium on either Saturday, Jan. 5, or Sunday, Jan. 6.
Additionally, Harbaugh reacted to the personal foul called on safety Ed Reed for a high hit Sunday. Earlier this season, Reed was issued a suspension, which was lifted on appeal, for repeated hits to the head and neck area. There’s already worries that his latest infraction could lead to a suspension.
This time, it appeared that Reed made primary contact with Victor Cruz’s shoulder, only grazing the New York receiver’s helmet.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I saw,” Harbaugh said. “It’s tough. Full speed, this whole thing - I hope that the league really takes a look at this in the offseason and figures out a way to help the players out a little bit because it’s been a real challenge so far this year. Ed was trying to do everything he could. I would say the same thing about the one on Torrey (Smith) on the block-back, it was chest-high. So our guys are really trying to do the right thing and it’s difficult full speed to do that.”
Harbaugh expects to hear from the league about potential discipline later in the week. Reed said Sunday he isn’t sure whether he’ll be punished.
“I don’t know what is going to come of it,” Reed said. “I had the referee whispering into my ear on the second play. All I like to do is play the game. I talked to Troy Aikman before the game about this - him and Joe Buck. They asked me how my game changed. I don’t really know what to do with it. I don’t really know what to do with that. I thought it was a decent hit. (Cruz) got up from it. I think Cruz got up.”