I will be the first to admit that I for one am concerned about the Baltimore Ravens regular season finale in Cincinnati against the upstart Bengals. I think by now, we can all agree that the Bengals are a legitimate playoff contender with a solid young core that will make them the other AFC North foe to be reckoned with for years to come. As if the yearly battles with the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t enough, now the Ravens have the Bengals to contend with. I know Drew liks to say that until the Bengals change their DNA, they’re still the Bengals and will be prone to losing when it matters.
But I think that is this year.
Gone are perennial losers Chad Ochocinco and Carson Palmer. T.J. Houshmanzadeh has been gone for a few years, but the stench of his losing ways has worn off, and it seems as though Marvin Lewis wasn’t quite the problem all along after all. Enter the “Red Rifle” Andy Dalton, a rejuvenated Cedric Benson, and a superstar in the making in All-World rookie wide reciever A.J. Green. This kid is a monster who has an unlimited ceiling in the NFL. As long as he keeps his head on straight and doesn’t turn into a knucklehead, his size and all around ability will make him one of the league’s to recievers for years to come. But there is something that sits in the back of my mind. Something that makes me confident about the Ravens’ chances this game. Something that tells me that as daunting a task as it may be to go into Cincinnati and pull out a much needed victory, the Ravens are absolutely capable of pulling that off. What is it, you ask? It’s simple…
That thing is what this game means for the Ravens.
The AFC North Division title and a first round bye in the playoffs.
Both are huge to this Ravens team and with their backs against the wall, the Ravens have consistenly answered the call during the Harbaugh era. Everyone wants to point out the Ravens missteps this season, on the road, against lesser teams. Except the San Diego Chargers, despite their record, the Chargers are one of the better teams in the conference who year after year under achieve due to poor coaching and cranky quarterback play. But make no mistake, they are a quality team and should have shocked no one the way they b-slapped the Ravens around in San Diego. But the one thing the Ravens have always done under Harbaugh, is answer when they are either counted out or have their backs against the wall. Until this season, you could make the argument that they had done that in every game except those involving the Pittsburgh Steelers, but given their two wins over them this season, they seem to have turned that around. At least for one season.
But that also plays into my point, in that when the Ravens NEED to pull off a win, and take that next step, they have usually been successful doing it under John Harbaugh. The team seems to feed on it. Thrive on it. It’s when they’re supposed to waltz that the Ravens have problems. They almost seem to need that added pressure to play up to the level they need. And that’s one thing this game has, is added pressure.
The Ravens are right now the walking wounded, and need that first round bye to try to get some of their working parts back and healthy, if they’re going to make a legitimate run at the Super Bowl this season. Not to mention, the opportunity to play their first home playoff game since January of 2007…and we all remember how that turned out. Both are huge, and both make the road to a Ravens’ Super Bowl, that much easier. Now, they have done a yeoman’s job on the road in the playoffs over the past three seasons, being the only team in the NFL to register a win in each of the past three postseasons. But you can almost tell that all that time spent on the road in the postseason has taken it’s toll on a team that boasts one of the more veteran squads in the league.
Not to mention that the Ravens are one of the most dominant home teams in the NFL while they appear to be just average on the road. A quality that does not bode well for them, should they go into Cincinnati and lose, while Pittsburgh would predictably beat Cleveland and knock the Ravens back into the #5 seed which means they would have to win three straight road games in order to go to the Super Bowl. The Ravens wouldn’t say so publicly, but that is a scenario that they would absolutely love to avoid.
Which is what makes this game so much more then just the final regular season game of the 2011 season. As a side note, this game means a lot to the Cincinnati Bengals as well. Right now, they hold the sixth seed and a win would guarantee them a Wildcard spot in the AFC playoffs. A loss, and they would need help, but a win locks them in.
But this means so much more to the Ravens. While the Bengals would be completely satisfied with any playoff berth of any kind, the Ravens have been one of the AFC’s perennial powers for the past three seasons, and are to a point where just reaching the playoffs isn’t good enough anymore. As a fan, I love that. I love knowing that just making the playoffs isn’t the goal for my team. The true goal is now winning the AFC and winning the Super Bowl.
And as a fan of the Baltimore Ravens, I wouldn’t want it any other way. And you know what…? Neither would they.