Every week in December, the Ravens have headed into Sunday with clinching the AFC North championship a possibility. They’re hoping try No. 4 will get the job done.
This time, as was the case last week, it’s all on them. Baltimore doesn’t need any help, just a victory - one that would snap a three-game losing streak, the team’s longest in three years - to wrap up its second straight division title.
The Ravens have slipped to 9-5 since a 9-2 start and safety Bernard Pollard said the team can only blame itself.
“We dug a hole. We can’t complain. We did it,” Pollard said. “We (threw) this thing away. We (threw) it away. We, as a team, have got to come together and we’ve got to fix it. Everybody’s talking about the past, everybody’s talking about what happened earlier in the season, everybody’s talking about what happened. Well, you know what? What happened is us. We are the problem and we have to fix this issue.
“Everybody’s talking about, ‘Well, you’re in the playoffs.’ Well, who cares, because the way we’ve played, who cares about the playoffs? If we don’t fix it, that’s going to carry over into the playoffs. We don’t want that to happen. We do not want that to happen at all, so we have to come together.”
The Ravens have endured comprehensive struggles during the slide.
They’ve averaged 21.7 points and 308.3 yards on offense over the last three games - twice finishing with 20 or fewer points and less than 300 yards. On defense, they’ve permitted 29.3 points and 379.7 yards per game, surrendering at least 350 yards in each contest.
Quarterback Joe Flacco is eyeing a much-improved finish to December.
“I hope we go out there, we play fast, physical, smart, and I hope we win football games,” he said. “I don’t hope - I know that’s what we’re going to do. It’s what we’ve done here. My goal is to make sure that we come out here every day and work hard to get as good as we can get this week, next week, the week after, so that when we go lace them up on Sunday, we’re giving the teams our best.”
Running back Ray Rice said he doesn’t feel the mood of the team has taken a downturn even as the losses have mounted
“The criticism hasn’t gotten to us,” he said. “Obviously, no one likes losing. We aren’t going to sit up here and sugarcoat anything about not going out there and not performing well. We can say our guys were hurt. We can say this - that’s it, ‘It’s always next man up.’ Obviously, we have to do a better job of, No. 1, preparing but going out there preparing to execute at a high level. We’ve shown flashes of that.
“With all of that being said, we can’t sit back and say we aren’t thankful for being in the playoffs. It’s been five years in the running for me, and this year it just happens to be a little bit different. No matter how you get in, it’s always the team who gets hot right about now. You look at the New York Giants - they got hot right about right now, and they went ahead and won the thing last year. No team has to be perfect right now, but if you go in there and start executing and you start playing that good football, you never know what can happen.”
Baltimore has a chance to begin playing that way with one of the NFL’s other struggling squads coming to M&T Bank Stadium.
The New York Giants (8-6) enter then contest having lost four of six since a 6-2 start and are fresh off a 34-0 loss to the Falcons, the team’s first shutout defeat in the regular season since 1996.
The defending Super Bowl champs have perhaps more to play for than the Ravens, as they are in a three-way tie atop the NFC East with two games to go. The Giants will likely need to win out to make the playoffs, but could potentially qualify with a victory and lots of help Sunday.
The Giants have a talented set of pass rushers in Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. But the trio has combined for just 15.5 sacks this season as the team is tied for 16th in the league with 32.
“We’re our own biggest enemy when it comes to what has happened in terms of our front,” New York coach Tom Coughlin said via conference call. “Our front is our bread and butter when you talk about the defensive side of the ball. That’s where it’s always started for us. When we are playing very well and we’re rushing the passer and we’re creating problems for the passer, then other things seem to fall in order.
“There’s one way of looking at it, which states it well: If you want a good pass rush team, you wouldn’t have people staying up at night trying to figure out how to keep you from getting on the quarterback. Yet it has been an issue that we’ve dealt with all year long, but haven’t really found a way, consistently, where we get pressure on the quarterback. No matter who you pick and look at, there have been games where we’ve been effective. We have had hits on a quarterback, but there have also been those where we don’t get home.”
The Ravens have to hope Sunday’s game is one of the latter, considering Flacco’s recent difficulty hanging on to the ball. He has fumbled in five straight games (six fumbles, three lost).
Even with the Giants’ slump in the pass rush, they remain tied for fourth in the NFL with a plus-13 turnover differential. So Flacco knows he’ll need to watch out for New York’s defensive front.
“They’re a good pass rush team. They create turnovers, whether it’s from those guys or guys getting their hands on the ball on the back end,” Flacco said. “It will definitely be a good challenge and an exciting one.”
The Ravens’ defense is charged with the task of stopping a second straight Manning and one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks.
Eli Manning hasn’t been at his best lately, but ranks ninth in the NFL with 3,590 passing yards. He has thrown for 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Over his last seven games, however, Manning has been held to fewer than 300 passing yards in each. He has thrown for just eight touchdowns and eight picks during that stretch.
Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees is expecting good Eli to show up.
“Like every week, you look at the plays that are the best plays. You don’t look at turnovers, because who knows if they are going to happen, and it may not be quite the same defense, the same scheme, whatever it is,” Pees told reporters. “I think whenever you look at an offensive team as a defensive coach, we always look at their best plays and the things that they do best and expect that. That’s what you’re playing for.
“You’re never going to play that some guy is going to fumble or this guy is not going to get his block. You pay (attention to) everything as the best.”
Someone’s struggles are going to come to a halt Sunday and coach John Harbaugh hopes it’s the team that can end the day with the AFC North crown.
“It’s important for us to win this game,” he said. “We have a job to do, and we need to be the best team we can be on Sunday.”