Forget about trying to guess what’s going to happen in New England at 4:25 pm. As a bunch of teams proved last weekend, the league is the ultimate game of “heads or tails”. San Diego wins in New York a week after getting blown out by Carolina. The Cowboys posted back-to-back wins over AFC North contenders Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, then got beat at home by a New Orleans team with nothing to play for except draft position. Seattle just ran roughshod over San Francisco six days after the 49’ers humiliated the Patriots for 35 minutes before winning a huge game in New England.
Just flip a coin. Most times, you’ll pick the winner by accident.
You can’t send the Ravens to Cincinnati on Sunday and say, “OK men, I know you played the first fifteen weeks at full speed with little regard at all for getting injured. Today, though, you’re going to go out there and play it safe, not to get hurt. We have the playoffs next week, you know.”
It doesn’t work that way.
Now, if the game meant absolutely nothing at all — if no playoff spot or seeding was on the line — I’d be fine with the Ravens treating the finale like it was pre-season game four. Let the starters break a sweat and then go ahead and give some of the 3rd and 4th stringers a couple of quarters of duty.
But something is at stake. It’s called, potentially, HOME FIELD.
Could someone get hurt playing the game on Sunday? Absolutely. Could that injury affect the game in January? Sure, perhaps. That’s the chance you take when you’re 10-5 and playing for January, instead of 5-10 and playing for nothing.
But, if you have the chance to finish ahead of New England, you play that opportunity to the max. If it turned out to be New England vs. Baltimore in the AFC title game, would you feel better about the Ravens chances in Baltimore (where they’re 34-7 in 41 games under Harbaugh) or New England?
Let the chips fall where they may between the Dolphins and Patriots. Don’t get into the game predicting business if you’re John Harbaugh. You might look awfully foolish if you play the JV in Cincinnati and Miami gets the bit between their teeth and does what every team in the league wants to do — wipe that smile off the faces of Brady and Belichick.
If you’re the Ravens, you win the game and worry about New England a little later on in the day. Put the pressure on the Patriots and see how they respond.
You might be happy that you did.