Ravens could knock Ben­gals out of con­tention

Baltimore Sun - - RAVENS - Jeff.zre­biec@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/jef­fzre­biec­sun

will miss the play­offs for the first time since 2010.

De­liv­er­ing the knock­out blow would be a nice change for the Ravens, who have lost five straight games to Cincin­nati and haven’t beaten Marvin Lewis’ team since Novem­ber 2013. Sun­day’s game car­ries far more sig­nif­i­cance than that, though, as the Ravens (5-5) are tied with the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers for first place in the AFC North.

“If you look at the rest of the sea­son, it’s a six-game sea­son,” Ravens coach John Har­baugh said Mon­day at his weekly news con­fer­ence. “In some ways, this is like our opener.”

As ri­vals, the Ravens and Steel­ers are al­ways on each other’s minds, but that will be es­pe­cially true over the fi­nal month and a half of the reg­u­lar sea­son. The Ravens have a slight edge be­cause they beat the Steel­ers at M&T Bank Sta­dium this month. But the Steel­ers have the eas­ier re­main­ing sched­ule, in­clud­ing a re­match with the Ravens in Pitts­burgh on Christ­mas Day.

Any way you look at it, the Ravens, de­spite a frus­trat­ing loss to the Cow­boys in a game many play­ers be­lieved they should have won, re­main in po­si­tion to ac­com­plish ev­ery­thing they set out to when the reg­u­lar sea­son be­gan.

“We know that ev­ery­thing is right in front of us. This is our op­por­tu­nity to go win the divi­sion,” Har­baugh said. “Ba­si­cally, we won the Pitts­burgh game to tie the divi­sion at 4-4. Since then, we’ve each beaten Cleve­land and lost to Dal­las. So we’re even, and there are six games left, and the same thing goes for Cincin­nati, which is be­hind both of us. We’re all go­ing to play each over

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the course of the next six games. So it’s go­ing to come down to that. It’s prob­a­bly what we knew go­ing into the sea­son. It was go­ing to come down to a divi­sion game, and that’s what it’s go­ing to come down to. So I’m ex­cited about that, and our guys are as well.”

For the Ravens, the process of mov­ing on to Sun­day’s game started in an oth­er­wise frus­trated locker room after the loss to Dal­las. Vet­eran safety Eric Wed­dle ad­dressed his team­mates, re­minded them that the Ravens were still in first place and sug­gested that the team should emerge from the Cow­boys’ loss with con­fi­dence after out­play­ing Dal­las for most of the first half.

The mes­sage seemed to res­onate even as the play­ers lamented their third con­sec­u­tive road loss.

“I think we’re fine, hon­estly,” wide re­ceiver Mike Wal­lace said. “Ob­vi­ously, you want to win ev­ery time you step on the field, but we know that’s not real­is­tic. We’re still in a good spot. We’re lead­ing the divi­sion. We con­trol our own des­tiny. That’s the way you want it. We have another divi­sion game, and if we take care of busi­ness there, we’ll get a bet­ter shot at it. We just have to con­tinue to grow and be­come bet­ter of­fen­sively. I think our de­fense is play­ing up to par.”

None of the team’s lead­ers be­lieved the Ravens played poorly in the loss to the Cow­boys, but all ac­knowl­edged that they didn’t play nearly well enough to up­end the league’s hottest team on its home field. For most of the first half, which ended with the score tied at 10, the Ravens did pretty much what they wanted to.

On of­fense, they sus­tained a few drives, avoided turn­ing the ball over and even es­tab­lished a run­ning game. On de­fense, the Ravens stopped the run, put some pres­sure on rookie quar­ter­back Dak Prescott and forced punts on the Cow­boys’ first four drives.

But the Ravens were over­whelmed in the sec­ond half. The of­fense didn’t do nearly enough in the lit­tle time it was on the field. The de­fense found no an­swers for Prescott and the Cow­boys’ short pass­ing game, al­low­ing points on five straight pos­ses­sions.

While he ac­knowl­edged that his team still was mak­ing too many mis­takes — the Ravens were as­sessed a sea­son-high 136 penalty yards Sun­day — Har­baugh stressed that he does see im­prove­ment. The of­fense, in par­tic­u­lar, has looked a lit­tle bet­ter over the past two games. The de­fense has been solid all year and would ben­e­fit from the healthy re­turn of out­side line­backer Elvis Dumervil (foot) and cor­ner­back Jimmy Smith (back). Both play­ers have a chance to face the Ben­gals.

“When you do things well, you build con­fi­dence. It’s sim­ple,” Har­baugh said. “But also you work hard, and that builds con­fi­dence as well. Our guys have done that, and they’ve also had a lot of suc­cess at times and done a lot of good things, es­pe­cially our de­fense, our spe­cial teams. And I feel like our of­fense is im­prov­ing. I feel like we’re get­ting bet­ter at the things that we’re try­ing to do right now. But it’s all about the next game.”

The Ben­gals’ los­ing two of their top play­ers could ben­e­fit the Ravens the most, be­cause the teams play twice over the fi­nal six weeks. But Cincin­nati has found myr­iad ways to beat the Ravens in re­cent years, so it would be fool­ish to dis­count Lewis’ team. The Ravens also still have home games against the surg­ing Mi­ami Dol­phins, who are 6-4 after win­ning five straight games, and the Philadel­phia Ea­gles (5-5).

They’ll have to go on the road and face the AFC-best New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots (8-2) as well as the Ben­gals and the Steel­ers.

Pitts­burgh, mean­while, has one game left against a team with a win­ning record: a Dec. 4 matchup with the New York Giants (7-3) at Heinz Field. The rest of its sched­ule is hardly a cake­walk, how­ever, as the Steel­ers play on the road on Thanks­giv­ing against the In­di­anapo­lis Colts (5-5), fol­lowed by road games against the Bills (5-5) and Ben­gals and home matchups with the Ravens and Browns to close the reg­u­lar sea­son.

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