It certainly wasn’t easy, but that has rarely been the Ravens’ style this season despite a 12-4 record and their first AFC North title since 2006.
To play at home in the playoffs, you have to handle business on the road during the season, and the Ravens did just enough in a 24-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, improving their road record to 4-4 and bringing a second-round playoff game to M&T Bank Stadium where the Ravens are 8-0 this season.
From the first day of training camp, players talked about beating Pittsburgh, winning the division, and playing postseason games in Baltimore. They were viewed as prerequisites for making a Super Bowl run to Indianapolis, and the Ravens have completed all of the above to this point, even if the journey hasn’t always been pretty.
The real season now begins for the likes of Ray Rice and Terrell Suggs — who have their best chance yet to reach the pinnacle of the NFL — as well as aging veterans such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, who may be staring their last chance at a championship squarely in the eyes. But, before they take the field in Baltimore in two weeks, there is plenty of work to do.
Much of it will be done in the training room, where many players will need to spend extra time getting healthy at a time when everyone is banged up to some extent. As if the Ravens weren’t already dealing with a plethora of injuries, safety Tom Zbikowski and cornerback Jimmy sustained concussions, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo suffered a quad strain, and linebacker Jameel McClain sprained his knee in the win over the Bengals.
The extra week will prevent wide receiver Anquan Boldin from feeling the need to rush back too soon from knee surgery and provide rest for players with preexisting ailments such as Lewis, Marshal Yanda, and Billy Cundiff. Though projecting the return of concussed players can be tricky, it’s not unreasonable to expect John Harbaugh’s team to be at full strength when they welcome the Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, or Pittsburgh Steelers to town.
The Ravens know how difficult it is to play a refreshed opponent in the second round after doing it three consecutive years — losing two of them — and believe it was a major factor in their second-half collapse to Pittsburgh last January. Now, they’ll be afforded the luxury of hosting a team that was forced to play 60 minutes of playoff football a week earlier.
Even with a healthy allotment of players, questions will remain over just how equipped this Ravens team is to finish the run to a Super Bowl championship. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will need to find more production in the Baltimore passing game to keep up with explosive offenses such as New England, and the defense will need to rediscover a pass rush that’s disappeared over the last month despite an AFC-leading 48 sacks in 2011.
Three more wins are needed for the Ravens to raise the Vince Lombardi trophy on the first Sunday in February. For a team that’s lacked consistency throughout the season, it’s difficult envisioning three top-level performances to finish the job. However, if we’ve learned anything about this unprecedented season following an extended work stoppage, it’s that even the best teams have flaws that can be exploited. This postseason will be as much about survival as it will be playing at a high level.
The Ravens took a major step in the right direction at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. They are already assured of getting to to the divisional round of the playoffs for the fourth straight year, and they’ll do it without having to play a snap of football next weekend. Their body of work in the regular season has won them an extra week of rest and time to tweak some deficiencies before returning to action on Jan. 15.
Whether the Ravens wind up in Indianapolis remains to be seen, but one thing is certain:
It’s a lot easier to imagine it happening now.