All the tension and uncertainty about whether the Ravens can extend their string of playoff appearances to six years in a row will be converted into relief or disappointment by 8 p.m. Sunday night.
The Ravens head into the last day of the regular season unsure whether they’ll be in the postseason and lacking complete control over whether they get there.
Before going any further, here’s a quick refresher of how Baltimore can get in the playoffs:
* If they win at Cincinnati, the Ravens need the Chargers or Dolphins to lose. Baltimore will not qualify if both win.
* If they lose to the Bengals, the Ravens need the Dolphins, Chargers and Steelers to also lose.
For a more detailed breakdown of all of Sunday’s playoff scenarios, click here.
But the Ravens don’t get in if they win and they’re not eliminated if they lose. They’ll know all they need to on Sunday, however, as the Dolphins host the Jets and the Steelers host the Browns at 1 p.m. before the Chiefs visit the Chargers at 4:25 p.m.
The Ravens were never in this strange spot in their first five years under coach John Harbaugh. They’ve needed to win their finale to get in before, but they haven’t depended on other teams to help propel them to the postseason.
Being shellacked 41-7 by the Patriots last week might’ve been the most recent act that set up a wild Sunday. But starting 3-5, including three consecutive losses from Oct. 13 to Nov. 3, is what really did the trick. From Sept. 29 to Nov. 3, Baltimore lost four games by a combined 14 points. Had the Ravens been able to pull out one of those contests, they might not be in this tough position.
But they are and they have to make the best of it.
“This is the situation we put ourselves in,” running back Ray Rice said. “But needless to say, we need to go there and put ourselves back in a position to try to win the game. I’m not sure what they’re going to do. I know they’re fighting for something different, but if we go ahead and take care of business, that’s what the game is all about. Since we put ourselves in this position, we’ve got to find a way to dig ourselves out. We’ve just got to win the last game on our schedule. It’s important, very important.”
It would be within reason if the Bengals decided to rest some players now that they’ve won the AFC North to clinch a playoff berth, but they have more to play for. Cincinnati can still earn a first-round bye with a win and a Patriots loss.
So it’s more likely that the Bengals won’t be holding back in any way with a chance to shorten their road to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens don’t have that luxury, as they’re just looking to crack the AFC’s top six to make it to wild card weekend. Some players recognized the excitement of such a meaningful day of football. Others didn’t see it that way at all.
“There’s nothing fun about this,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “You want to have a spot solidified. You kind of want to be resting your players around this time, but going into a big point, ... you’ve got to win. So there’s nothing fun about being in a position like this.”
So what’s Smith’s mindset going into the contest?
“Win. No matter what it takes, win,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s a 50-point blowout or you win by one. Just win.”
Defensive lineman Chris Canty fell in the other category. He said he wished a playoff spot was wrapped up, but recognized the fun ahead Sunday.
“You’re playing in the National Football League and typically in December, you’re excited about it because the stakes are a little bit higher, the game-speed’s a little bit faster and that’s football at its finest,” he said. “You want to play in games and situations where there’s a lot on it.”
Harbaugh hasn’t seen the team’s approach or demeanor change in the week leading up to such an important contest.
“We always have a great temperament and great attitude. To say that it’s different would be saying that we’re not on point every single week,” Harbaugh said. “We really fight hard to be on point every single week. We really work hard to have our best week of practice. Some plays, some things are executed better than others and all that. It wasn’t perfect this week, but we’re chasing perfection. We feel like if we chase perfection, we’ll have a chance to accomplish excellence. And that’s what we try to do. So, we’re going to keep chasing that and try to be as good as we can be.”
Rice, like Harbaugh, has been to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons with the Ravens. This year more than any other, he’s been shown just how hard it is to get there.
“Every game has seriously been a playoff game for us for the last couple weeks, and we’ve been holding on by a string. I take a lot of pride in being in the playoffs every year, and just quite frankly, I’m not looking forward for it to change any bit,” Rice said. “The thing about that is we’ve got to control what we can control, and that’s important. I’m not worried about another team’s fate or something that happened. The thing is we have to control what we can control, and that’s going out there and at least putting out a victory and then waiting the rest of the thing out. I’m not even going to go into if or when. We need to control Sunday and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
But he feels Baltimore’s run to the finish - four straight wins and five out of six before last week - shows the team knows how to win when it needs to.
“We’re battle-tested and we take pride in being battle-tested,” Rice said. “Last week was last week, but I know the group that’s going to show up on Sunday. The group that’s going to show up on Sunday is going to fight until the last whistle, until it’s all over. Hopefully it’s good enough to take care of business and that’s what it means to us right now. These are the guys that we have. You’re not probably going to see anybody happy. ...
“You’re probably not going to see anybody even smiling or happy or anything right now because of the situation we’re in. And it’s strictly business. We’re going out there for nothing else, we’re just going out there to win the game. ...
“Everything from here on out from the last five to six weeks for the Ravens has been a must-win. So nothing has changed from that standpoint. Every game we said was a must-win. We got a little help along the way and things happened, but every game’s a must-win. This one happens to be the last game of the regular season, and right now what we’re chasing is trying to get back to 0-0.”