One year removed from a 5-11 debacle that included a franchise-record nine-game losing streak, the surprising Ravens are nipping at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ heels in the chase for the AFC North crown as they make a legitimate bid to go from worst last season to first-place this year.
A victory in Sunday’s showdown against the Steelers (10-3) would propel the Ravens (9-4) into a tie for the division lead. And the Ravens see no reason why they can’t potentially win their second AFC North title in the past three years, and haven’t found cause to lower their lofty expectations.
"We want to be division champs, we want to be champions," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly news conference. "That’s something that every team in the division plays for. We’re not backing down from the fact that that’s our goal. The Steelers stand between us and the division championship, and they’re next up on the schedule."
In the wake of a 24-10 victory over the Washington Redskins, the Ravens have won seven of their past eight games. Baltimore leads the NFL with a 29.8 scoring average over the past eight games, and ranks second in points allowed during that span with a 14.1 average surrendered per contest.
Although the Steelers are coming off an epic comeback victory over the Dallas Cowboys and have won four consecutive games, they have lost their past five games in Baltimore.
With every week, the stakes grow more crucial for the Ravens.
"Do they become more important as they come? Absolutely," Harbaugh said. "It’s pretty appropriate that the best two teams in the division will be playing for the division championship. Really, not just this week, but for the next three weeks. So in that sense, it’s exciting to be a part of. Our players have earned it."
Harbaugh acknowledged that he’s pondering the myriad of wild-card playoff scenarios, but he doesn’t want to become obsessed with the mathematical permutations and various tiebreakers that determine who qualifies for the postseason.
If the Ravens lose Sunday, the Steelers, who claimed a 23-20 overtime win on Sept. 29 in Pittsburgh, would clinch the division title. Even if they finish the regular season with the same records, the Steelers would win the division by virtue of owning the first tiebreaker: head-to-head records.
A Ravens win could set up a dramatic tiebreaking scenario that could go down to the end of the season.
The Ravens’ narrow loss to the Tennessee Titans this year could prove critical. If the Steelers fall short this weekend, they can still win the division by defeating the Titans and the Cleveland Browns to achieve a superior conference record to the Ravens.
Of course, there are also the intricacies of the wild-card route to consider.
Baltimore, which currently owns the sixth and final AFC playoff berth, would play the Denver Broncos on the road during wild-card weekend if the regular season was over today.
However, the AFC East plans to have something to say about the playoff picture. The Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots sport 8-5 records, one game behind the Ravens, and are tied for the AFC East lead with the New York Jets, who own the current tiebreaking edge in that division.
It’s unlikely the Ravens will catch up with the streaking Indianapolis Colts for the fifth spot at this point.
"It’s not something we’re going to talk about as a team because it’s not really pertinent to what we have to get done," Harbaugh said. "We have to win. What have we done? We’ve earned the right to play one more meaningful game in December. That’s all we’ve done. But that’s a lot, and that’s something to be proud of."
The Ravens began the season 2-3, raising doubts about Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco that created an especially loud clamor following a 31-3 loss to the Colts. Since that three-game losing streak, the Ravens have only lost one game and that was to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
"I love where we’re at, and it’s not just because of our record," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "It’s because of the attitude the guys have. We’ve bought into what the coaches are preaching, and the guys are having fun."
The Ravens refuse to look too far ahead, relying upon a stingy, opportunistic defense spearheaded by free safety Ed Reed and middle linebacker Ray Lewis, a pile-driving running game led by fullback Le’Ron McClain and Flacco’s precocious game.
Their collective exploits have set up a three-week proving ground with a postseason run in the offing.
"We are taking them one at a time," Reed said. "This is what we’ve been doing, focusing week to week. It’s the right time for us."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.