It’s all come down to this for the Jekyll and Hyde Baltimore Ravens of 2011 – win on the first day of 2012 in Cincinnati or have the season quickly turn into a month-long road journey that has claimed many wildcard victims along the way in the NFL over the years.
We all know the stakes – a Ravens win over the Bengals would earn Baltimore a much-needed two weeks of rest, relaxation and home-cooking while four other AFC teams (including the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers) have to pack, play and win on the first weekend of 2012 with nothing but airplanes and hotels in their futures.
An unthinkable loss in Cincy – like the ones the Ravens have suffered four times this season against just three road wins – and the local heroes will be stuck on a week-to-week road journey that almost certainly would destroy their Super Bowl chances in Indianapolis for early February.
After all, the theory goes, if you can’t beat the Bengals in Cincinnati where they can’t even sell their own pseudo-playoff tickets, how could the Ravens go to Denver or Oakland and then Pittsburgh and New England and win three straight NFL games on the road in January?
So it all comes down to Cincinnati on Sunday for the Ravens to have any odds we’d all like for them to win the Super Bowl.
The most important roadtrip in Baltimore Ravens’ history?
Sure, I think we can make that case, especially given the stakes of the bye and the home-field advantage that the Ravens can execute with a victory over upstart quarterback Andy Dalton and the Bengals.
Several key injuries have made this game in Cincy look even more formidable, considering the limps and gimps on both sides of the football for the Ravens. Losing David Reed for the remainder of the season will put a crimp into the special teams efforts moving forward but the Ravens’ entire squad has looked more like an infirmary the past few weeks with a series of injuries affecting the roster.
The most serious this week will be the chest contusion suffered by Marshal Yanda, who is their most effective offensive lineman and a key cog in the Ravens’ desire to run the ball with Ray Rice and Ricky Williams. Coach John Harbaugh was unusually direct in his statements regarding the situation with Yanda but the Ravens will plug in Andre Gurode if necessary and attempt to win in Cincinnati.
As the axiom in the game goes “No one is healthy at this time of the season” but with the Ravens it’s even more severe because of how these untimely losses will affect the offense, which has been inconsistent even when all its parts have been on the field.
Just when it appears Lee Evans gets healthy, the Ravens lose Anquan Boldin.
Just when Ray Lewis gets back on the field, the Ravens lose Dannell Ellerbe.
Just when Lardarius Webb gets back onto the field in one piece, the Ravens lose Cary Williams with a concussion.
And let’s not get started on the Billy Cundiff injury and the tough decisions Harbaugh and the coaching staff will have making a decision on who will be kicking the most important three-pointers of the season for the franchise — the now questionable Cundiff or former Bengals kicker Shayne Graham, who looked strong vs. Cleveland last Saturday.
But excuses and injuries will fall on deaf ears with the Baltimore Ravens’ fan base if the Ravens come back from Cincinnati late Sunday night staring at a three-week roadtrip beginning somewhere West – Oakland or Denver – and they might even have to play that game in just five days given the wildcard Saturday starts.
And while some teams – including last year’s version of the Green Bay Packers – could survive that kind of grind and win a Super Bowl title, it would take someone far more gullible than me to think that a team that struggled to a 3-5 road finish this year and coming off a loss in Cincinnati would be considered a real threat to run the table with three straight road victories going through the likes of Pittsburgh and New England in back-to-back weeks.
And while the clock ticks on the football careers of the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Matt Birk – did anyone say last and best chance for a championship in Baltimore? – it’s easy for me to write that this game in Cincinnati is indeed the most important roadtrip in Ravens’ history.
The Ravens have never played a bigger regular season game or one with higher stakes than this New Year’s Day game of poker in Cincinnati.
Undefeated at home in a perfect 8-0 run this season, the Ravens are now going to finally have to show that they have the heart of a champion in southern Ohio on Sunday.