BALTIMORE — Running back Ray Rice said it best in describing the Ravens’ mindset in their 55-20 demolition of the Oakland Raiders at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.
With a divisional showdown looming in Pittsburgh next week, the Ravens easily could have been looking past a struggling opponent coming into their home stadium where Baltimore had won 14 straight regular-season games. Instead, they scored a franchise-record 55 points — more than any other NFL team in a game this season — and posted their largest margin of victory since 2009.
So much for a trap game, or even a lackadaisical start for that matter.
“Nobody comes into our house and stomps on our grass,” Rice said. “We knew we had to protect our home. We have a great streak going, and we had to protect it. You don’t let anybody come in your yard. We like to keep our clean-cut grass and keep our front yard, and we did that. Nobody had to call the landlord.”
Joe Flacco threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns, continuing his trend of looking like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL at home despite his well-documented road struggles.
The offense is now averaging 36.8 points per game in Baltimore as opposed to only 17.5 on the road.
Even a struggling defense put forth a respectable effort against the pass-happy Raiders, holding Oakland to 20 points despite allowing 422 total yards.
What had been an impressive trend is now bordering on the absurd as the Ravens’ last loss suffered at M&T Bank Stadium will be a few days shy of the two-year mark by the time they welcome the Pittsburgh Steelers to town for their next home game in three weeks. Baltimore has looked every bit the part of one of the league’s best teams when they wear their purple jerseys in front of 71,000 home fans.
More than anything, the blowout win on Sunday once again reminded us how critical the final seven games of the regular season will be to the Ravens’ Super Bowl aspirations. Even with their flaws and limitations that surface on the road, Baltimore simply looks unbeatable at home.
And it’s where they’ll need to play if the Ravens truly want to take the next step in a very successful five-year run under John Harbaugh.
“I don’t care how you feel like you’re doing in one place or another place,” Harbaugh said. “You always want to be at home in that situation, so that’s a long-term goal. But, the short-term goal is more immediate, and we have a big game on the road against our divisional rival and we’re looking forward to that.”
Yes, the Ravens have concluded the junior-varsity portion of their schedule as five of their final seven games come against 2011 playoff teams. They’ll play their other two opponents — San Diego and Washington — on the road.
It’s fine to talk about a preference for playing home playoff games, but you must win on the road in November and December to be hosting games in January. Even after another convincing performance at home on Sunday, it’s still difficult to project whether the Ravens will ever be able to turn on the same switch in away games.
“It just seems like all good teams, for whatever reason, tend to play very well at home and probably not play as well on the road,” Flacco said. “Or, maybe it’s because those teams that we’re playing on the road also play well at home. But I’ve got to tell you, we’ve played some big games on the road a couple years — every year we’ve been here — and we’ve won a lot of them.”
In a roundabout way, Flacco described the challenge perfectly. It’s tough to win on the road in the NFL. In fact, it’s damn tough to do against the best teams the league has to offer.
The Baltimore quarterback is right, as the Ravens have won two straight regular-season contests in Pittsburgh and won a tough battle in Cincinnati in the 2011 regular-season finale to clinch the AFC North title. But that same road moxie hasn’t really surfaced this season beyond a few quarters of play in Philadelphia and Cleveland.
The Ravens will need to find a way to do it just enough in their final four road games to put themselves in position to utilize the best home-field advantage in the National Football League. Baltimore entered the week just a game behind the Texans, who already own the head-to-head tiebreaker via their 43-13 win over the Ravens in Week 7, but Houston isn’t battle-tested in the same way that the Ravens are. If the Texans falter the slightest bit, the Ravens need to keep themselves in position to seize the opportunity.
It starts next week where the Ravens will have undoubtedly grabbed the Steelers’ full attention after posting 55 points against a Raiders team that bested the Steelers in Oakland earlier this season.
Despite all the criticism and doubts heard over the last few weeks, the Ravens’ performance on Sunday means no one will be taking them lightly. The immense success they found against the Raiders needs to translate to real improvement on the road.
“When you put that on the board and you put that on film, you put a target on your back,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “I just think for us, like I said, this is the closest to 60 minutes that we’ve played all year as a team, and we have to build from this.”
Their Super Bowl hopes depend on it.