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OWINGS MILLS — Barring an unforeseen wrinkle such as committing the mistake of overlooking the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Ravens will no longer be on the brink of clinching a playoff berth by late this afternoon.
Because the Ravens have so much at stake combined with how competitive the last encounter was when they needed a Matt Stover field goal with 20 seconds remaining to defeat Cleveland, there appears to be little danger of overconfidence sabotaging their prospects today at M&T Bank Stadium.
With a guaranteed reservation to the postseason assured with either a victory or a tie today over Cleveland (4-9), virtually all the Ravens have to do to avoid the trap of looking ahead is to refer to a 15-14 comeback win over the Browns engineered by quarterback Steve McNair. Or they can take a look back at last seasonâ€™s 6-10 campaign capped by a lackluster effort in a loss at Cleveland.
Plus, the Ravens can clinch the AFC North title Monday night if they beat Cleveland and the Cincinnati Bengals lose to the Indianapolis Colts.
â€œLast year we were 6-10, and we havenâ€™t earned the right until we pull off some winning seasons to overlook or talk about anybody,â€ linebacker Bart Scott said. â€œThey beat Kansas City and they are a good team. They did play us so close and that game could have gone either way. We had to pull out old magic Stover to pull that one off.â€
At least on the surface, this one doesnâ€™t look like itâ€™s going to be that narrow a margin.
The Ravens are favored by 11 points, are 5-1 at home this season and havenâ€™t lost to Cleveland at home since 2002. The Browns have never scored more than 17 points in their previous seven trips to Baltimore.
Cleveland has the NFLâ€™s 29th-ranked offense and 30th-ranked defense and will be without several injured starters on each side of the football.
â€œThere is too much at stake,â€ Ravens coach Brian Billick when asked about the possibility of underestimating the Browns. â€œThey know better than to overlook any team in the NFL. These guys are on top of it. Theyâ€™ve got a mission about them.â€
So do the Browns, just not as grand a pursuit. They want to spoil their archrival’s season with an upset win despite having former Baltimore practice squad quarterback Derek Anderson under center because starter Charlie Frye is out with a bone bruise on his right wrist.
The Browns are coming off a 27-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers where they allowed 528 yards of total offense, including 223 rushing yards on 32 carries from running back Willie Parker.
â€œOne thing you have to understand and always respect in the NFL is that every team is good,â€ Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. â€œThere are no bad teams. Every player is going to come out on the Cleveland Brownsâ€™ side of the ball ready to play football.
â€œWe understand that at the end of that 60 minutes when that clock shows all zeroes, if weâ€™re up [along with a Bengals’ loss], then weâ€™re division champs. Bottom line. We see that.â€
Pondering the multitude of playoff scenarios has become a guilty preoccupation for the Ravens heading into this pivotal NFL weekend.
The Ravens can clinch a playoff berth with a win or a tie, or a Cincinnati loss or tie to give the Ravens a strength of victory edge over the New York Jets, a Denver Broncos loss or tie for the strength of victory edge over the Jets, the Jets and Cincinnati losing or tying, the Jets and Broncos losing or tying, or the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars losing and Cincinnati losing or tying or New England and Jacksonville losing and Denver loses or ties.
Thatâ€™s a lot of scoreboard watching while trying to keep the Browns from playing spoiler.
â€œYou canâ€™t lie as a player, you are aware of it,â€ Scott said. â€œBut you know if you donâ€™t take care of your businessâ€¦ The biggest part of the equation is you winning the last three games.
â€œâ€˜What if this team loses?’ But if you lose, then it kills everything. We need a little help, but that help is going to be negated unless we take care of our business.â€
Over the past four games, McNair has completed over 70 percent of his passes three times and running back Jamal Lewis has scored five touchdowns.
The leagueâ€™s top-ranked defense has surrendered just 33 points over that span, an average of 8.3 per contest, and has given up just three touchdowns in the past dozen quarters.
â€œWe havenâ€™t played our best football yet, but weâ€™re moving in the right direction,â€ Lewis said. â€œWhen the offense is giving us leads like that and our defense can pin their ears back, thatâ€™s championship football.â€
Meanwhile, itâ€™s fairly confusing for the Ravens to decide which teams to root for. If the Bengals beat the Colts and the Ravens win, Baltimore would be in sole possession of the AFCâ€™s No. 2 playoff seed behind the San Diego Chargers (11-2), who enter their game against the Kansas City Chiefs with the NFLâ€™s best record.
The No. 2 seed carries an automatic first-round bye, an important goal to shoot for since this is a veteran-laden team that seems to always be rejuvenated by time off.
While a Bengals win would delay the Ravens from clinching the division for at least another week since Cincinnati (8-5) is two games behind Baltimore, it could pay dividends for Ravensâ€™ playoff outlook.
The Ravens were on the verge of clinching the division with a win in Cincinnati, but looked tired on a short turnaround prior to the Thursday night game and lost 13-7. Division champion T-shirts and hats, which are already available for sale on the Internet, couldnâ€™t be unveiled in the Cincinnati visitorsâ€™ locker room as originally planned.
â€œI just want to win this game, then whatever needs to happen for us to get a bye, Iâ€™ll be rooting for whatever team I need to root on for us to get a bye,â€ All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. â€œIf I have to root for Cincinnati, Iâ€™ll root for Cincinnati.
â€œBut we need to win against Cleveland and then weâ€™ll look at that other stuff. If we donâ€™t do what we have to do against Cleveland, then all the other stuff is pointless.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland