Ravens could knock Bengals out of contention
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
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.