OWINGS MILLS – True desperation is expected to ratchet up the intensity of the blocking and tackling today.
A harsh reality surrounds the Baltimore Ravens’ game today against the Detroit Lions at M&T Bank Stadium.
If the Ravens (6-6) are somehow upset by the Lions (2-10), their playoff hopes will be effectively extinguished if not seriously damaged, their season probably lost within a cloud of serious questions.
“We’ve backed ourselves into a corner and if we don’t win, we’re done,” linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “So, we’d better win.”
In the thick of the hunt for the second AFC wild-card spot with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets, the Ravens can’t afford to share the fate of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers unexpectedly lost their fifth game in a row Thursday to the Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens need this game badly.
One game behind the Jaguars (7-5) and tied with the Dolphins and the Jets in terms of win-loss percentage, the Ravens trail the Jaguars in a tiebreaker for conference records.
To be assured of a playoff berth, the Ravens probably need to win their remaining four games.
Johnson is convinced that a 9-7 record will leave the Ravens on the outside looking in and watching the postseason from their couches one season removed from an AFC title game appearance.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to take this route to get there,” running back Ray Rice said. “But if you look ahead, this can be the most exciting four weeks or our life, if we take care of business. It’s a journey to get something else, and we’ve got four games.”
There are several compelling reasons to believe that the inconsistent Ravens won’t fall short against the Lions.
Detroit has lost its past 18 road games after going winless last season.
"Yeah, it’s a monkey on our back right now," Lions star wide receiver Calvin Johnson said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "It’s definitely something you want to throw out the window."
The Lions are down to their backup quarterback, Daunte Culpepper, with rookie starter Matthew Stafford, the top overall pick of the draft, out with a separated, non-throwing shoulder.
"It will be a smooth transition," Johnson said. "Daunte still has it."
The Ravens have won seven out of their past nine games against backup quarterbacks, a run of success that includes wins in each of the previous five games against non-starters.
And the Ravens are 56-22 for a .718 winning percentage at home this decade.
The Lions also feature the worst pass defense in the league, which should provide a boost to struggling quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco is coming off a season-worst three interceptions in a 27-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
The Ravens need to avoid turnovers and penalties after being flagged a season-high 12 times against Green Bay, including five pass interference penalties, and allowing three touchdown passes while turning the football over twice in the red zone.
“Lack of talent isn’t the problem around here,” cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. “It’s sad, but it’s kind of been the story of our season: We’ve just been inconsistent.
“There will be spurts of games or plays where we play well as a defense, then there will be a hiccup here or there. Unfortunately, we’re not good enough to play through those hiccups. We’ve got to eliminate those.”
And the Ravens absolutely can’t afford a repeat of their franchise-record 21 penalties from the last time they played Detroit, a 35-17 loss that was so embarrassing that it prompted team owner Steve Bisciotti to issue an apology to the team’s fans.
That game at Ford Field included linebacker Terrell Suggs and safety B.J. Ward being ejected, cornerback Chris McAlister tossing a football at a Lions player after an interception and nose guard Maake Kemoeatu flipping off the Lions’ fans.
This year, the Ravens’ problem hasn’t been behavior as much as a tendency to be obvious when they’re grabbing an opposing player illegally.
“Guys are just trying their hardest to make a play, and maybe they’re being a little too aggressive,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to pay attention to where your hands are when you’re covering a guy during practice so when you get in a game, you’ve worked on it during the game. You have to stay mentally focused, stay on the small things like penalties. We’ve got to get that cleaned up because it’s killing us.
Added Ravens coach John Harbaugh: “I felt like we had that kind of corrected three or four games ago, and all of a sudden it showed up in this game, and guys are doing what you can’t do. You can’t grab a guy’s wrist, you can’t grab his arm, you can’t hook the arm. We don’t even want to get involved with any of the hand-wrestling anymore. We want to run with the guy and make the play on the ball.”
Now, the Ravens may have to play this game without free safety Ed Reed (strained groin, foot) and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (sprained medial collateral ligament).
The Ravens will need to orchestrate another patented strong finish to the season to avoid becoming irrelevant in the wild-card race.
“Around here, it’s always been the same thing: We’re grinders,” All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “If it’s going to come, it’s going to come late, as it’s always been around here. The bottom line is every year I’ve been around here, our best football probably comes in the later part of the year. Here we go again.
“You look at the whole AFC playoff picture, everything is right there. I just think you’ve got to go play football and not be worrying about the ups and downs of the season. Once you get caught into that, you lose your energy and passion truly for the game.”
NOTE: The Ravens promoted wide receiver Justin Harper from the practice squad, an indication that starting wide receiver Mark Clayton could be out or limited today with a tweaked hamstring and a knee injury.
They cut fullback Charles Ali to create a roster spot for Harper, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound seventh-round draft pick last year from Virginia Tech.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.