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Ravens in position to take advantage of down AFC North

Posted on 15 November 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens haven’t really looked the part of a division champion through the first nine games of the season.

They didn’t win a game in the month of October.

The offensive line can’t stay healthy and the offense ranks in the NFL’s bottom 10 in most statistical categories.

Three of their five victories have come against two teams who’ve gone a combined 2-17.

Their highly-paid quarterback has thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns and is in the midst of one of the worst seasons of his career.

And yet the 5-4 Ravens are in sole possession of first place and have the only winning record in the AFC North entering the latter half of November. Flawed as they might be, the rest of a struggling division envies Baltimore’s position with Thanksgiving right around the corner.

Since divisional realignment took place in 2002, the champion of the AFC North hasn’t won fewer than 10 games. Including the history of the old AFC Central, you’d have to go back to 1990 when Cincinnati went 9-7 to find a division champion with fewer than 10 wins.

Barring dramatic improvement from Baltimore, Pittsburgh (4-5), or Cincinnati (3-5-1) over the final seven games, no team appears likely to reach that 10-win plateau. It’s no sure thing that anyone even reaches nine wins, either, especially when you’re reminded that the Ravens still have to face four non-division teams currently sporting winning records.

With the Bengals’ loss to the New York Giants on Monday night, the AFC North fell to 7-19-1 in non-division games in 2016. Even removing winless Cleveland from the equation, the AFC North holds the worst winning percentage in non-division games among the NFL’s eight divisions.

In short, it’s been a bad year for a proud division that’s sent at least two teams to the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons. But the Ravens are in solid position to take advantage of the mediocrity.

John Harbaugh’s team faces a difficult task playing at Dallas on Sunday, but three of Baltimore’s next four games after that will be played at M&T Bank Stadium. Winning all three of those home games against Cincinnati, Miami, and Philadelphia would put the Ravens in position to finish 9-7 if they can win just one more road game down the stretch. The Christmas Day game at Pittsburgh would be the most meaningful from a potential tie-breaking standpoint.

The offense is likely to remain the Ravens’ Achilles heel with the injuries along the offensive line, but a defense ranking first in yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and third-down defense and ranking in the top five in several other statistical categories is eager to prove it belongs among the more special groups in franchise history. The Ravens will have their chance to show it with several tough opponents on the horizon.

The path will be difficult, but it’s looking better than the rest of a down AFC North at the moment.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 10 win over Cleveland

Posted on 12 November 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving back above .500 after a 28-7 victory over winless Cleveland on Thursday night, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Watching Terrell Suggs get the best of nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas was special. He’s playing with one arm and isn’t the consistent game-wrecker he used to be, but the 34-year-old turned in a vintage performance with a strip sack and a pass defense leading to an interception.

2. He recovered nicely to throw three touchdown passes, but Joe Flacco looked jumpy and frenetic in the pocket throughout the first half. The Ravens can only hope his second-half rebound is a sign of better things to come, but that third-quarter interception in the end zone was ugly.

3. Marty Mornhinweg should continue using the crossing routes and slants we saw in the second half against the Browns. There’s no reason not to use the speed of Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman while letting Flacco get rid of the ball quickly.

4. We’ve talked plenty about Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young, but nickel cornerback Jerraud Powers turned in a strong performance. He broke up a pass the only time a Cleveland quarterback threw his way and intercepted another that was knocked up into the air.

5. You could tell how relieved John Harbaugh was to be able to smile and exhale over the final few minutes of Thursday’s 21-point win. Twenty-two of your previous 24 games being decided by a single possession will take a toll.

6. Jeremy Zuttah has had his struggles this season, but he’s the only Baltimore offensive lineman to start all nine games. Give the center credit for pushing through back and ankle issues to play 72 of 82 offensive snaps, especially after left guard Alex Lewis left with an ugly ankle injury.

7. It’s looking more and more like the offensive line problems aren’t going to be fixed this season. Lewis had looked good at left guard the last two games while the status of five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda remains in question. Those are crippling losses.

8. Some of the gold numbers were difficult to read, but I give the “Color Rush” uniform a passing grade, especially compared to those of other teams. I’d like to see the striping on those purple pants added to the Ravens’ black pants that are too dull.

9. Every time Michael Pierce turns in another strong performance, I can’t help but think it pushes pending free agent Brandon Williams a little further out the door. The rookie free agent recorded a tackle for a loss and batted a pass at the line of scrimmage.

10. Josh McCown had past success against the Ravens, but Hue Jackson’s decision to bench Cody Kessler was still baffling. Kessler wasn’t great, but that was a quick hook for a rookie who had outplayed Flacco to that point and orchestrated a touchdown drive in the first half.

11. They can’t do it exclusively, but the no-huddle offense needs to become a bigger part of what the Ravens do after it led to two touchdowns in the second half. It could put some strain on the defense, but you have to do whatever it takes to get Flacco going.

12. Watching Steve Smith’s eyes light up when asked about doing the Ray Lewis dance reminds us how much the 37-year-old still feels like a kid. After getting permission from Lewis to do the dance, Smith watched some YouTube videos to make sure he got it right. Having fun matters.

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Ravens-Browns: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 10 November 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Do what you’re supposed to do.

That’s the message for the first-place Ravens as they welcome winless Cleveland to town for Thursday Night Football, the first prime-time game played in Baltimore since Sept. 11, 2014. Baltimore is looking to move back over .500 in its second game in five days while Cleveland is trying to avoid falling to 0-10, which would be the worst start in franchise history.

As expected, the Ravens will be without five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who was listed as doubtful and has now missed three of the last four games with a left shoulder injury sustained on Oct. 9. Though he returned to action and did not miss a snap against Pittsburgh on Sunday, Yanda once again being sidelined is a significant concern for an offensive line struggling to perform at a high level in 2016.

After starting two games in place of Yanda earlier this year, reserve Ryan Jensen was a healthy scratch. Based on pre-game warmups, it appeared that veteran Vlad Ducasse would receive his first start with the Ravens at right guard. Ducasse was cut by Baltimore at the conclusion of the preseason and then re-signed on Oct. 11 as injuries on the offensive line piled up.

The 29-year-old has made 22 starts in seven NFL seasons with previous stops with the New York Jets, Minnesota, and Chicago.

This marks the sixth different combination that the Ravens have started on the offensive line this season. That’s not as crazy as Cleveland’s run on quarterbacks this year, but it’s hardly ideal, a major reason why the Baltimore offense has struggled so much in 2016.

There were no surprises among the Ravens’ other inactives after linebackers Elvis Dumervil (foot) and Kamalei Correa (thigh), cornerback Shareece Wright (hamstring), and tight end Crockett Gillmore (thigh) were already declared out on Wednesday. Wright’s absence has opened the door for rookie Tavon Young to seize control of the starting cornerback job opposite veteran Jimmy Smith.

The Browns ruled out starting cornerback Jamar Taylor on Wednesday, leaving the NFL’s 23rd-ranked pass defense with less depth in the secondary.

Thursday’s referee is Jerome Boger.

According to Weather.com, the Thursday forecast in Baltimore calls for clear skies and temperatures in the low 50s with winds up to five miles per hour.

As part of the NFL’s “Color Rush” initiative for Thursday games, the Ravens are wearing special purple jerseys with gold numbering as well as purple pants and purple socks for the first time in franchise history while the Browns don white tops with white pants and white socks. Some of the gold number is difficult to ready, but anything’s better than the mustard-colored pants worn last season, right?

Thursday marks the 36th meeting between these AFC North foes with Baltimore enjoying an overwhelming 26-9 lead in the all-time series. The Ravens are 13-4 at home against the Browns and are aiming for their 11th season sweep over the AFC North opponent.

Below are Thursday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
G Marshal Yanda
LB Elvis Dumervil
CB Shareece Wright
TE Crockett Gillmore
LB Kamalei Correa
OL Ryan Jensen
DL Willie Henry

CLEVELAND
QB Joe Callahan
CB Jamar Taylor
LB Corey Lemonier
OL Gabe Ikard
OL Jonathan Cooper
WR Jordan Payton
DL Xavier Cooper

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Thursday

Posted on 09 November 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens must build on what they accomplished in Week 9.

As veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs reminded in the post-game locker room on Sunday, a win over Pittsburgh means nothing if the Ravens stub their toe against 0-9 Cleveland on Thursday night. Of course, that stubbed toe would feel more like an amputation against a team that hasn’t won a game since before last Christmas.

A win would not only give the Ravens a half-game lead in the AFC North entering the weekend, but they would also move back above .500 for the first time since mid-October. On the flip side, the Browns are a loss away from their worst start in franchise history, a dubious possibility in a nationally-televised game.

It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore tries to avenge a rare home loss to Cleveland last season and complete the season sweep in 2016. The Ravens lead the all-time regular-season series by a 26-9 mark and are 13-4 against the Browns at M&T Bank Stadium. Cleveland has lost 15 of the 17 games played in this series during the John Harbaugh era.

Below are five predictions for Thursday night:

1. Steve Smith will shine in prime time with his second touchdown reception of the year. Thursday marks the first night game of the season for the Ravens, meaning the 37-year-old wide receiver will be eager to prove to a national audience that he’s still playing at a high level despite last year’s devastating Achilles tendon tear. Mike Wallace has had a strong season, but Smith is still the one who really makes the passing game go, evident by how mightily the Ravens struggled without him last month. He’ll take advantage of the league’s 23rd-ranked pass defense to find the end zone.

2. The Ravens secondary will victimize Browns rookie Cody Kessler with two interceptions. The rookie third-round pick from USC has played surprisingly well in his first six NFL starts, throwing for five touchdowns and only one interception while posting a 96.1 passer rating. However, you have to wonder how he responds on a big stage against a defense playing at a high level. After dropping multiple interceptions against Ben Roethlisberger in Week 9, Baltimore will be motivated to catch the ball to add to its total of nine picks on the season.

3. Terrelle Pryor will continue his strong season for Cleveland with 75 yards receiving and a touchdown catch. The 6-foot-4 former quarterback bounced from team to team for a couple years before finding a home with the Browns. Pryor has emerged as a play-maker with 46 catches for 579 yards and four touchdown catches despite a carousel of quarterbacks playing for the Browns. The return of rookie first-rounder Corey Coleman from a broken hand gives Cleveland another matchup problem, which will help Kessler find his top receiver for the Browns’ lone touchdown of the night.

4. Baltimore will eclipse 100 yards rushing for the first time since Week 5. After so much hand-wringing about the running game before Marc Trestman’s firing, the Ravens have been even worse on the ground since his exit, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry over the last three games. With Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda not expected to play and rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley struggling mightily in his return last week, it’s in the Ravens’ best interest to be able to run the ball and the Browns are giving up 4.6 yards per carry this season. This team must find a solid ground game to stay in the playoff hunt.

5. Joe Flacco and the offense will be steady but unspectacular in a 20-12 win that looks like a typical short-week game. These NFL Thursday games are a terrible product and this one involves the worst team in the league and another that hasn’t blown anyone out in two years, a combination that doesn’t create the highest expectations. We know the Ravens have been a mess offensively for quite some time, but the Browns rank at or near the bottom in multiple defensive categories. Improved third-down efficiency and two touchdowns shouldn’t be too much to ask if the offense is going to start showing improvement. The Ravens will be in control, but a late Cleveland score results in another one-possession final.

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Ravens “haven’t done anything” to be able to take Cleveland lightly

Posted on 09 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are playing the worst team in the NFL at home on a short week and are coming off a critical win over their biggest AFC North rival that moved them into a first-place tie.

Yes, the woeful Cleveland Browns haven’t won a game in nearly 11 months, but we’re also talking about a Baltimore team that’s lost four of its last five games and has made several below-average defenses look exceptional over that time. The Ravens also haven’t beaten a team by more than one possession in nearly two years and have seen 22 of their last 24 games decided by a single score.

There’s also that matter of what happened in Week 2 if there were any lingering question of whether the Browns had the Ravens’ attention. That’s why any thoughts about a potential letdown are being met with a different response than the one you usually hear from a team in first place.

The Ravens aren’t good enough themselves to take any team — even the Browns — lightly.

“We haven’t done anything yet. We’re 4-4,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We sit at the top of the division, but one loss and you’re out. This is a division game, a rival. They were up 20-0 on us and easily could have beaten us, so we can look at many factors to remind ourselves that we can’t take anything for granted.”

It’s easy to dismiss the Browns, who are 0-9 and own the worst point differential in the league at minus-105. First-year head coach and former Ravens assistant Hue Jackson knows what he’s dealing with as he spoke just this week about finding a way to avoid going 0-16.

The Browns do have a handful of talented players such as nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, and young wide receivers Terrelle Pryor and Corey Coleman, but the problem is the rest of the roster that resembles an expansion team.

They have been competitive at times, starting with their surprising performance against the Ravens in which they jumped out to a 20-point lead in the first quarter before Baltimore scored 25 unanswered points the rest of the way. The Browns forced overtime at Miami the following week and held a second-half lead on the road against Washington in Week 4. They even held a 20-7 halftime lead over a New York Jets team that had beaten the Ravens just a week earlier.

“If you watch the tape, they are making a lot of really good plays,” head coach John Harbugh said. “This is a very formidable challenge. It was the first time we played them this year. It was both games last year. It was both games the year before that. It always is that way, so our guys understand the rivalry that we have with Cleveland. We understand how tough a game it’s going to be. We don’t put any stock in that [winless record].”

Despite those polite comments, the Ravens know they have no excuse not to win Thursday’s game.

The Browns rank 31st or 32nd in the league in total defense, run defense, points allowed per game, third-down defense, and red-zone defense. If Joe Flacco and the offense can’t get going against this miserable group, then it’s difficult to think they ever will this season.

The Ravens defense continued to earn more respect after overwhelming Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers for most of this past Sunday’s contest and will now have a chance to make life miserable for rookie Cody Kessler and an offense ranked 19th in total yards and 29th in points per game.

It likely won’t be the prettiest performance as we’ve come to expect for any Thursday night game, but it’s an opportunity to move back over .500 that the Ravens cannot afford to squander. Amazingly, a Browns loss could officially eliminate them from playoff contention this weekend depending on what happens elsewhere, but Baltimore is only concerned with taking care of its own business in the second of four home games over a five-game stretch.

“We haven’t played as well as we wanted to yet, but we’ve positioned ourselves to this point,” said Flacco, who threw for 302 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions against Cleveland in Week 2. “Our goal over the next month will be to put ourselves in a position to play meaningful games in December. If we can get ourselves to the point where we’re playing meaningful games in December, then that usually leads to playoff games where anything can happen.

“We have a lot of room to get better.”

That starts with doing what they’re supposed to do against a woeful opponent on Thursday.

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Ravens rule Yanda doubtful, four others out for Thursday night

Posted on 09 November 2016 by Luke Jones

Just when it looked like the Ravens had finally gotten their starting offensive line in order, they again look like they’ll be without the best member of that group against Cleveland.

After missing practices all week, right guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder) was designated as doubtful to play against the Browns on Thursday night. The five-time Pro Bowl selection had only returned to action this past Sunday against Pittsburgh after a two-game absence.

Yanda injured his left shoulder in the Week 5 loss to Washington, an ailment that forced him to miss his first games since the end of the 2012 regular season. Wearing a harness on his left shoulder, the 32-year-old played every offensive snap in the 21-14 win over the Steelers.

Needless to say, it’s a concerning development to see Yanda sidelined once again after having close to a month to rehab the injury when accounting for the Week 8 bye. The short week clearly didn’t help matters with the Ravens scheduled to kickoff roughly 97 hours after the conclusion of Sunday’s win.

Ryan Jensen started two games in place of Yanda last month.

The Ravens ruled out linebackers Elvis Dumervil (foot) and Kamalei Correa (thigh), cornerback Shareece Wright (hamstring) and tight end Crockett Gilmore (thigh) after those four missed practices all week. Dumervil will be missing his seventh game of the season as he continues to work his way back to full strength from offseason surgery.

Rookie running back Kenneth Dixon (chest) was designated as questionable to play, but the fourth-round selection was a full participant in practices all week.

Meanwhile, the Browns listed only one player on their final injury report, but it’s a significant loss as starting cornerback Jamar Taylor was ruled out with a groin injury.

The referee for Thursday’s game will be Jerome Boger.

Thursday night’s forecast calls for clear skies with temperatures in the mid-50s and winds up to seven miles per hour.

Below is the final injury report for Week 10:

BALTIMORE
OUT: LB Kamalei Correa (thigh), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh), CB Shareece Wright (thigh)
DOUBTFUL: G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Kenneth Dixon (chest)

CLEVELAND
OUT: CB Jamar Taylor (groin)

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Yanda still resting shoulder as Ravens move closer to Thursday

Posted on 08 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda continues to rest his left shoulder as the Ravens move closer to their Thursday night matchup with Cleveland.

Yanda was absent during Tuesday’s walk-through and continues to receive treatment for an injury suffered against Washington on Oct. 9. After missing his first two games since the end of the 2012 regular season, the 32-year-old returned to action in Sunday’s 21-14 win over Pittsburgh.

He wore a harness on his left shoulder and did not miss a single snap against the Steelers.

Linebackers Elvis Dumervil (foot) and Kamalei Correa (thigh), cornerback Shareece Wright (hamstring), and tight end Crockett Gillmore (thigh) were also absent on Tuesday. Running back Kenneth Dixon (chest) was present and working once again after being listed as a full participant on Monday.

The Ravens made more changes to their practice squad on Tuesday, cutting quarterback David Fales and adding cornerback Robertson Daniel and guard Jarell Broxton.

Daniel had recently been on the 53-man roster before being waived to make room for returning safety Matt Elam. He played 19 special-teams snaps in the Week 7 loss to the New York Jets, which was his first NFL game.

The Browns were without two starters for the second straight day as Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas (knee) and cornerback Jamar Taylor (groin) sat out their Tuesday practice.

Below is Tuesday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Kamalei Correa (thigh), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh), CB Shareece Wright (thigh), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)
FULL PARTICIPATION: RB Kenneth Dixon (chest)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Jamar Taylor (groin), OT Joe Thomas (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Ricardo Louis (hamstring), DE Carl Nassib (eye), WR Terrelle Pryor (hamstring)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Joe Haden (groin), DT Jamie Meder (knee)

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Ravens preparing on short week, re-sign Campanaro to practice squad

Posted on 07 November 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens reunited with a familiar face as they returned to the practice field to quickly begin preparations for a Thursday meeting with the winless Cleveland Browns.

Less than two months after parting ways with 2014 seventh-round pick Michael Campanaro, Baltimore re-signed the River Hill product to its practice squad on Monday. The wide receiver suffered a calf injury at the end of the preseason and was only eligible to re-sign with the Ravens this week after receiving an injury settlement in mid-September.

With veteran return specialist Devin Hester struggling to make a positive impact despite a decorated NFL career, Campanaro could serve as an eventual replacement with some experience returning kickoffs and punts. However, injuries have derailed each of his first three seasons as he’s appeared in just eight games since being drafted.

Conducting a walk-through without helmets or pads just 24 hours after their 21-14 win over Pittsburgh, the Ravens were without six players during the portion of the workout open to media: wide receiver Steve Smith (ankle), guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder), tight end Crockett Gillmore (thigh), cornerback Shareece Wright (hamstring), and linebackers Elvis Dumervil (foot) and Kamalei Correa (thigh). Yanda and Smith both played against the Steelers and were likely receiving the day off to rest their respective ailments while the other four were inactive for Week 9.

Rookie running back Kenneth Dixon was participating in the walk-through despite exiting Sunday’s game with a chest injury in the second half.

In addition to Campanaro, the Ravens also signed tight end Mitchell Henry to their practice squad and released wide receiver Dobson Collins. Practice-squad offensive lineman Blaine Clausell was signed to Washington’s 53-man roster on Monday.

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Trade deadline passes without any action from Ravens

Posted on 01 November 2016 by Luke Jones

The NFL trade deadline passed without the Ravens — or any other team — making a deal of significance on Tuesday.

After Monday’s surprising trade of New England linebacker Jamie Collins to Cleveland, the final hours leading up to the 4 p.m. deadline were unsurprisingly quiet. With just under $3 million in salary cap room, Baltimore wasn’t in a great position to make a significant move.

Former Raven Torrey Smith was rumored to be on the trading block in recent days, but the San Francisco wide receiver and University of Maryland product is staying put with the 49ers, who are off to a 1-6 start.

All attention now moves to the practice field with the Ravens welcoming Pittsburgh to town for a critical AFC North tilt on Sunday. Baltimore hopes to welcome several injured players back to game action this week, a list including linebackers Terrell Suggs (biceps) and C.J. Mosley (hamstring), wide receiver Steve Smith (ankle), and offensive linemen Marshal Yanda (shoulder) and Ronnie Stanley (foot).

The first injury report of the week will be released on Wednesday.

The big story for the Steelers is the status of starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who underwent surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee on Oct. 17. The 34-year-old practiced on a limited basis on Monday and did some light on-field work during Pittsburgh’s bye week.

“I thought it was generally positive,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. “We hadn’t spent a lot of time analyzing it or talking about it at this juncture. Really, it’s been giving him the work and him taking the work. And he’s done a really good job with it.”

Should Roethlisberger not play, backup Landry Jones would make his second straight start. Head coach John Harbaugh said Monday that the Ravens would prepare this week as though the starter would play and added that the Steelers offensive system doesn’t change dramatically with Jones under center anyway.

On Tuesday, the Ravens released running back Stephen Houston from their practice squad. With Lorenzo Taliaferro being activated in Week 7, Baltimore has four running backs on its 53-man roster, diminishing the need to keep Houston in the organization.

After placing star running back Jamaal Charles on injured reserve, Kansas City worked out former Ravens running back Trent Richardson on Tuesday, according to ESPN. The former first-round pick of the Browns was released by Baltimore early in training camp after struggling to stay healthy this spring and undergoing knee surgery.

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Fresh off their bye, Ravens have no choice but to get well quickly

Posted on 31 October 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens returned to work Monday aiming to start anew.

Using a much-needed bye week to get their bodies and minds right after a winless October, they won’t have long to wait to set the tone for the second half of the season. Playing two games in a five-day period is always a challenge, but those contests are against familiar AFC North foes — a de facto first-place Pittsburgh team that could be without Ben Roethlisberger followed by winless Cleveland — both at M&T Bank Stadium.

It certainly could be worse from a scheduling standpoint with the Ravens able to get a head start on the game plans for both opponents during the bye.

Head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged the good timing of the condensed stretch, but the urgency is clear if the Ravens want to make something out of the remainder of the 2016 season.

“I want to knock some of this disappointment off,” said Harbaugh as Baltimore still carries a four-game losing streak. “This is something you carry around with you. It’s not what you want. It is not the goal. The goal is to win these games and have the kind of record that you think reflects how hard you have worked.”

Despite falling to 3-4 after a 3-0 start in September, the Ravens and their fans have cited the wide-open nature of the division with the Steelers sporting the only winning record as reason for optimism. A win on Sunday propels Baltimore into a first-place tie with a chance to then move back over .500 against the woeful Browns just four nights later.

It gets tougher after that for the Ravens, however, while the schedule softens for both the Steelers and second-place Cincinnati.

Baltimore’s remaining nine opponents sport a .522 winning percentage with the four road foes — Dallas, New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati — owning a combined .683 mark. The challenging second-half schedule was why so many opined that the Ravens needed to win at least five of their first seven games, but that potential margin for error is long gone.

Meanwhile, the Steelers’ remaining schedule sports a winning percentage of just .396 with their five road opponents a combined 13-25-1. After a Nov. 13 meeting with the NFC East-leading Cowboys at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh has just one more game on its schedule against a team currently above .500.

If the Steelers can tread water until Roethlisberger returns to good health — a big if with three of their next four games on the road — they are the consensus favorite to win the division, making Sunday’s game even more crucial for the Ravens.

The Bengals have stumbled out of the gate to a 3-4-1 start, but their eight remaining opponents have combined for a .458 winning percentage and their four road opponents are just 12-18. Cincinnati hasn’t looked nearly as formidable as it did a year ago, but each of its four losses has come against a first-place team.

Winning the division is always the goal, but that’s especially true in a year in which the AFC West currently holds three teams with just two losses each, making that division the mid-season favorite to claim the two wild-card spots. Of course, there’s plenty of football to be played across the league, but counting on enough mediocrity elsewhere to sneak in as a 9-7 wild card could be a particularly tricky recipe this season.

That’s why the Ravens must win the next two games to not only eliminate the foul taste of October from their palates but to begin stacking enough wins ahead of a brutal final month that features road games against New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. The last two road defeats to the New York Giants and New York Jets were painful enough, but Harbaugh made it clear on Monday how critical the next two contests in the Ravens’ home building are.

“We need to win these games,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t care where they are being played. We needed to win the two on the road the last two weeks; we didn’t. We need to win these at home.”

The remainder of the season depends on it.

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