For those people believing the Ravens should take the final week of the regular season to rest up and get ready for the playoffs, you might want to rethink your position.
It’s true that the Ravens own a 10-5 record and have nothing but the AFC’s third seed to play for Sunday at Cincinnati. So logic would lead one to think it makes the most sense for coach John Harbaugh to rest his starters since this game matters a whole lot less than next week’s first-round match-up with Cincinnati or Indianapolis.
But it’s not like Baltimore is speeding its way toward the postseason. The Ravens started December with their first three-game losing streak in three years, and as uplifting as last Sunday’s victory might’ve been, it was just one win.
The Ravens appear on the right track after putting up 533 yards and allowing just 186 in a 33-14 beating of the Giants. But another good showing couldn’t hurt.
Even though the division title and a home playoff berth are already in place, the Ravens’ visit to Cincinnati has some meaning.
“It’s going to be very important. You always want to have momentum going into the playoffs,” cornerback Corey Graham said. “We always want to play good, be rolling. So this is a big week for us. We want to go out there and continue to roll on in the right direction.”
Harbaugh acknowledged it’s difficult for the coaching staff to figure out what’s best for the team.
“There are a lot of factors involved with that,” he told reporters. “There’s no formula here. What we try to do is do what’s best for us to be the best team we can be in the playoffs. Part of that is playing as well as we can this week. We’re going to (try to) win the football game, but we have other considerations to take into account as well.
“Some of that has to do with different guys’ health, and there are some domino effects with that. The No. 1 thing to keep in mind is you have to go play all out to win the football game. You have to. That’s the 46 guys who are active. They have to be a part of that, because if you don’t, this game’s not made for that. That’s what we will be doing.”
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is among those who wants to see the Ravens show they’re closer to the team that started 9-2 than the one which tumbled at the beginning of this month.
“We just want to go out there and play Ravens football,” he said. “We want to go out there and show the world that we are getting better at the end of the year, and we are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.”
The Ravens’ offense is up against one of the best defenses in the league.
The Bengals went through a rough start, permitting 430 yards in a 44-13 season-opening loss at Baltimore. But since allowing at least 300 yards in seven of the first nine games, Cincinnati has held opponents to fewer than 300 in each of its last six contests.
The Bengals enter the game as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, having won six of seven behind the league’s sixth-ranked defense.
The unit is led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who has made a career-high 13 sacks. As a team, Cincinnati is second in the NFL with 47 sacks.
Quarterback Joe Flacco said Atkins is just as dangerous of a pass rusher as he is a run stopper.
“He’s just an all-around player; he’s good at both,” Flacco said. “He’s just a guy that’s in there, and he’s a strong player, and I think he shows that he does both of them really well.”
On the offensive side, the Bengals are led by quarterback Andy Dalton and wideout A.J. Green.
Dalton has passed for 3,591 yards, 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Green has been his most threatening target, earning a Pro Bowl invitation after entering the finale ranked fifth in the league with 1,324 receiving yards on 95 catches, 11 of which have gone for touchdowns.
“He’s a very tough match-up,” Graham sad of Green. “He’s got size, he’s like (6-foot-4), he’s got speed, he’s got great hands. He goes up and high-points the ball all the time, so he’s definitely a very good receiver. There’s a reason why he made the Pro Bowl. We’re going to go out there and make plays against him.”
But with the 9-6 Bengals locked into the AFC’s sixth seed, it’s not certain how much their key players will be on the field.
The same goes for the Ravens. Yet, tailback Ray Rice is confident in this team’s prospects right now - whether the starters stay in and try to build momentum or they’re rested in preparation for the playoffs.
“We are talking about a Ravens team who are battle-tested,” Rice said. “There is nothing that you could throw at us that we haven’t dealt with. We’ve dealt with injury. We’ve even dealt with death with one of our teammates’ family members. We’ve dealt with everything else you can imagine during one year. So this team right here is focused. You are talking about a team that has been through a lot of adversity.
“To win the AFC North - no matter how you’ve done it - you did it. We’re battle-tested going forward, and that makes me feel good about this team, because it’s different. It’s different than any other year. You guys have seen what’s going on around here. You’ve seen the changes that we’ve made. We’ve always responded to a change and adversity, and we’re ready to play.”