OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You couldn’t script the circumstances for a more festive atmosphere in Baltimore on Sunday — at least for a regular-season game.
Playing their first home game in three weeks and enjoying a three-game lead in the AFC North, the Ravens welcome the struggling Pittsburgh Steelers to town with plenty of incentives in addition to the intrinsic motivation that comes with playing their biggest rival.
A win clinches a playoff berth and eliminates Pittsburgh from contention for the division title. That coupled with a Bengals loss in San Diego gives the Ravens their second straight AFC North championship.
To rub further salt in the wounds of the Steelers, the Ravens could sweep them for the second consecutive year and set a franchise record with a fourth straight win over Pittsburgh in the regular season. A win over Pittsburgh wouldn’t end their adversary’s playoff hopes, but it would leave them with little margin for error with a 6-6 record.
However, the Ravens are leaving the bells and whistles to media and fans to worry about, especially when it comes to the possibility of clinching the division at the earliest point in a season ever in the history of the franchise. With goals above and beyond a fourth division title in 10 years, Baltimore cannot afford to rest on its laurels.
“Who’s talking about it? You are — we’re not worried about it,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We’re just going to continue to chalk up [wins], and most importantly, defend [M&T Bank Stadium]. We’ve got a special thing going in front of our stadium, in front of our home fans.”
Special indeed as the Ravens are approaching the two-year anniversary of their last loss in Baltimore, which took place on Dec. 5, 2010 against these same Steelers. They’ve won 15 consecutive regular-season games at M&T Bank Stadium, the longest active home winning streak in the NFL.
It’s the type of home-field advantage the Ravens live for when the calendar hits December and challenging games against the Denver Broncos and New York Giants remain after Sunday’s meeting with Pittsburgh.
“It’s what we are all in this for, it’s what we work so hard for,” coach John Harbaugh said. “These opportunities to be playing relevant and meaningful games in December and playing meaningful games in your division against your biggest rival. That’s what it’s all about.”
Last season, the Ravens earned a taste of what it’s like to play postseason games in their home stadium, but they want to take it even further than the No. 2 seed and first-round bye that they enjoyed. That’s why the division title and guarantee of a wild-card round home game only goes so far in terms of satisfaction.
Perhaps it’s the way they’ve earned the reputation of a team that wins ugly and isn’t viewed by many to be as good as their record would indicate. And the consistently-stellar performance of the offense at M&T Bank Stadium — averaging 36.8 points per game in five home contests — is a far cry from the meager 16.5 they’ve averaged in six road games, providing even more incentive to play home games in the postseason.
The Ravens aren’t satisfied with where they stand as running back Ray Rice shared the sentiment Wednesday that the Ravens are a “pissed off” 9-2 team.
It’s that mindset that may aid the Ravens in keeping their foot on the accelerator after potentially sewing up a playoff spot against the banged-up Steelers on Sunday. We’ve all seen teams in a variety of sports clinch division titles and playoff spots with plenty of regular-season action remaining, leading many teams to lose their edge without an ability to turn on the switch in the postseason.
“We haven’t decided anything yet,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “The stakes are high. We’re trying to become one of the top teams in the AFC. In order to do that, we have to win every week. We understand that, and there is a big emphasis on continuing to win. It may seem like a loss may not kill us, but you never know.”
No, the Ravens do not control their own path to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as they sit one game behind the Houston Texans, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker after a 43-13 thrashing of Baltimore on Oct. 21. It means their margin for error is non-existent in the season’s final month.
But that’s just fine for a team that’s historically had to scratch and crawl in terms of postseason positioning in each of the last four years, with three appearances coming as a wild card. A win on Sunday assures them of a postseason appearance, but it also brings the big picture into focus and how the Ravens can put themselves in the best position to achieve their optimum goal.
“You sort of think of, ‘Do you get settled right there, or is there more?’” Rice said. “When you clinch this early, then you have to look at the rest of the AFC. You look at where New England is. You look at where Houston is. You look at where Denver is, and then once you clinch, you think about that kind of deal.”
Harbaugh acknowledged earlier this week that the resiliency of this team stems largely from the heartbreak experienced in last January’s AFC Championship. For veterans such as Ed Reed, Matt Birk, and the injured Ray Lewis, this could be the final opportunity to advance a step further to the Super Bowl.
Younger players and rookies will hear warnings from veterans of not taking this chance for granted because they don’t know when and if it will be presented again.
So while a potential division title and a chance to send the Steelers packing with another loss has Baltimore fans feeling giddy with four games remaining after Sunday, it truly is just the next game on the docket for the Ravens.
“We know what the bigger picture is, the overall goal,” Suggs said. “And we can’t be satisfied with [taking] anything to chance so early in the season, because it’s still a long season and the end goal — everybody knows — is in February.”
It’s still too far away to lose sight of what’s directly in front of them, but the Ravens have New Orleans on their minds — even after all their growing pains and trials this season.
And it’s why they won’t be turning cartwheels with a win over the Steelers on Sunday.
They’ll leave that to everyone else.