The real thing won't be presented for another five weeks, but to a man, the Ravens say that their run to that elusive second Super Bowl trophy starts Sunday afternoon when they face the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in one of the bigger regular-season finales in team history.
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Paul Brown Stadium, 1 Bengals Dr, Cincinnati, OH 45202, USA
A loss to the Bengals (9-6), coupled by a Pittsburgh Steelers victory over the Cleveland Browns, and the Ravens would again be forced to make their playoff run from the road, a scenario that they haven't been able to overcome the past three years.
"This is the type of opportunity that you work for in this league," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Everything we put into our offseason work, everything we do, is geared toward this time of year. In my mind, this is the playoffs."
It certainly is win-or-else for the Bengals, who need either a victory Sunday or a lot of other results to go in their favor to cap a surprising season with a playoff berth. The Ravens secured their fourth consecutive trip to the playoff two weeks ago, but as far as they are concerned, the stakes are just as high for them, an indication of how much they value a first-round bye and at least one week of home-field advantage.
"We need this win as bad as they do," said veteran linebacker Jarret Johnson, who has made the playoffs five times with the Ravens but only played in two home playoff games. "So, motivation and intensity isn't going to be the problem this game."
The Ravens haven't had a home playoff game since 2006 when they were beaten by the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round. Since then, they had last season end in Pittsburgh, the 2009 campaign come to a screeching halt in Indianapolis and the 2008 season hit a wall again in Pittsburgh, one game shy of the Super Bowl.
They have won at least one playoff game in each of the past three seasons since Harbaugh became the head coach and Joe Flacco the starting quarterback, but each of those seasons ultimately ended in disappointment. They have talked since Day One of the season about getting at least one home playoff game to make things a little bit easier on themselves.
"I don't think it's about postseason for me anymore," said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "It's mostly about finishing that. It's mostly about going to the next level, and that's kind of my experience of going through so many years. That's why I'm trying to get the guys to always see that these opportunities don't come but every now and then. So, each game means something. Each season means something. I was just talking to Ray [Rice] and was telling him we've [gone] from Year One with him, and now we're in Year Four already with him. And you see how quickly it can go by. But the opportunities go by even faster. Now we have a lot of key pieces that have matured to the point that they see that it is right now that we need to go do what we need to do."
The Ravens are 27-5 under Harbaugh at home and have won 18 of their past 19 games at M&T Bank Stadium. Meanwhile, they are 3-4 on the road this season, with three of those four losses coming to teams that have already been eliminated from playoff contention. So their desire to get a home playoff game, rather than playing a wild card game in either Oakland or Denver next weekend, needs no further explanation.
However, even more than clinging to home-field advantage, the Ravens could certainly use a first-round bye. They haven't had one since 2006, and it would be especially important for this team with so many key performers nursing injuries.
Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda is dealing with rib and thigh injuries that will probably sideline him Sunday. Starting cornerback Cary Williams and reserve linebacker Dannell Ellerbe suffered concussions last week. Defensive end Cory Redding is expected to play Sunday despite a sore ankle that kept him out of last week's game. Kicker Billy Cundiff has been struggling with a left calf injury for nearly a month.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin could use another week to come back from knee surgery, and veterans like Lewis and safety Ed Reed are dealing with their own injury issues.
"It makes a world of difference," said Rice on the prospect of getting a first-round bye. "It's huge — anybody will tell you. I personally feel like, after you win the wild card round and not having that bye, you usually come back to that next game scratching and clawing. As you can see, Pittsburgh was the fresher team last year when we had to play them in the divisional game. Second half, they came out with their motor running. We came out high, and then we hit a low. When you get that bye, you're able to play fresh throughout the whole game, and it makes a big difference, a huge difference. Needless to say, this week is a playoff game. It's big for [the Bengals], and it's even bigger for us.
"I've said it earlier this year: They're a great football team. Their city wants to see them in the playoffs, and they're going to come out and fight like never before. They've shown the ability to be a great team at times, and we've got our hands full. But I think we've got just the men for the job."
The Bengals have sold the game out, a rarity this season for a franchise that has experienced a rebirth of sorts behind rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and first-year wide receiver phenom A.J. Green, along with a rugged defense that stops the run and gets after the quarterback.
Just 4-12 last season, the Bengals have a chance to make the playoffs for just the third time since 1990. The Ravens beat them, 31-24, earlier in the season, but Green did not play in that game. Cincinnati has beaten the Ravens in five of the past six meetings at Paul Brown Stadium.
"We have to know and understand that as a team that they're going to throw the kitchen sink at us," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. "It's all or nothing for them, so it's going to be that feeling. It's going to have that energy, that intensity. We're going to be in a hostile environment. They're going to be ready to play. With us, we have to be able to play on the road."
The Ravens have won all three of their regular-season finales under Harbaugh, though not all of them carried significant playoff ramifications. Last season, they beat the Bengals, 13-7, to close out the regular season, but long before the game ended, they knew they'd have to settle for the wild card and a first-round matchup in Kansas City.
In 2008 and 2009, the Ravens went into their final regular-season games knowing they needed a victory to clinch a playoff spot, and they got it both times, beating Jacksonville in 2008 and the Raiders the following year.
Regardless of what happens Sunday, this year's Ravens know that they will have another football game to play. But that doesn't mean they don't feel as much urgency as they did heading into Week 17 in previous seasons.
"This is a playoff game," Lewis said. "They're trying to get in and we're already in, and we have to go finish what we started the whole year. We know we are playing for home-field advantage. We know how big that is, to come play in Baltimore. There is nothing else on our mind."
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