OWINGS MILLS, Md. — No matter which way you look this week, it’s impossible to ignore the signs of bad karma as the Ravens prepare for the most important game of their season and, perhaps, in the regular-season history of the franchise.
There was the organization’s decision to delay the mailing of playoff tickets until next week. It’s clearly a financially-prudent choice, but it doesn’t exactly scream confidence in the Ravens winning in Cincinnati when looking from a superficial level.
The Bengals then announced they sold out Paul Brown Stadium for Sunday’s showdown at 4:15 p.m., eliminating the potential for a listless atmosphere such as the one in which the Ravens played in Cleveland earlier this month. Poke all the fun you want at the two-for-one deal the organization offered its season-ticket holders, but there will be 65,000 fans in attendance, even if several thousand make the trip from Baltimore to support the Ravens.
Of course, putting the interesting — but inconsequential — footnotes aside, the Ravens are dealing with a plethora of injuries as wide receiver Anquan Boldin has already been ruled out, leaving behind a passing offense that struggled to find its way against the Cleveland Browns last Saturday. Marshal Yanda, their Pro Bowl right guard, is dealing with rib and thigh contusions, leaving his status up in the air against the fifth-ranked run defense in the NFL.
And, yes, the Ravens own a 3-4 record on the road this season. It’s the reason why they covet the AFC North title, a first-round bye, and a guarantee of a second-round playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium, where they are 8-0 this season.
The Ravens want the home cooking, but they may need the time to allow their bodies to heal even more.
“When you get that bye, you’re able to play fresh throughout the whole game, and it makes a big difference, a huge difference,” running back Ray Rice said. “Needless to say, this week is a playoff game. It’s big for them, and it’s even bigger for us.”
Treating this one as a playoff game is a common theme shared by many in the Ravens’ locker room this week. The notion of this one being bigger for the Ravens than it is for the Bengals sounds great if you’re peering through purple-tinted lenses, but it goes against all reasonable logic.
Regardless of what happens on Sunday, the Ravens know they’re playing another game; the Bengals own no such luxury. And for a Baltimore team that’s struggled to maintain focus on the road throughout the season — often faltering in weeks that followed a significant win — it’s a concerning circumstance.
With so much emphasis on winning a championship with veterans such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in the twilight of their careers, are the Ravens too focused on the big picture of Indianapolis to pay close attention to the necessary stops along the way?
“This game pays off, if we can this this game,” coach John Harbaugh said. “But, whatever happens, we’re going to play the next game, too. So, our focus is on this game. You can’t play games in the future, and you can’t play any games in the past.”
The head coach said it himself. The Ravens still have outs if they lose on Sunday, even if you don’t like their odds having to go on the road for the fourth consecutive postseason.
Meanwhile, the Bengals’ opportunity to make the playoffs diminishes significantly with a loss in what’s turned out to be a remarkable season under head coach Marvin Lewis. Cincinnati is that desperate man with nothing to lose, the one you don’t want to meet in a dark alley.
Rookie Andy Dalton demanded the Ravens’ attention after throwing for 373 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati’s 31-24 loss in Baltimore last month. The Bengals possess three dangerous weapons in tight end Jermaine Gresham and wide receivers A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson for Dalton to target.
It falls short — in both height and statistics — of the Chargers offense that humiliated the Baltimore defense in a nationally-televised game two weeks ago, but it’s similar enough to raise concern if the uninspired Ravens show up like they did in road performances at Tennessee, Jacksonville, Seattle, and, most recently, San Diego.