OWINGS MILLS – Locked in a tight AFC wild-card playoff race with at least five other contenders, the Baltimore Ravens are banking on being built to compete in the raw elements of December.
As the weather turns colder with snow predicted for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears, the Ravens plan to rely upon a physical offense capable of grinding out yards.
The Ravens are coming off a 48-3 victory over the Detroit Lions where they piled up a franchise record 548 yards of total offense and five touchdown runs, an effort led by running back Ray Rice’s career-high 166 rushing yards.
“Philosophically, we want to be physical,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “That’s really important in the NFL. We don’t ever want to lose our ability to run the ball.
“Yeah, you need to run the ball when the weather gets a little bit worse. We want to be an all-weather offense. And, of course, that means running the ball, but you’ve got to be able to throw the ball in December, too.”
The Ravens’ offensive line got back to business against the beleaguered Lions, pushing, shoving and driving the defense off the line of scrimmage.
After drawing criticism for the past few weeks while allowing a total of eight sacks against the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was a gut-check game for the line.
The Ravens installed Oniel Cousins as a starter at right tackle for the first time while shifting rookie Michael Oher over to left tackle again with Jared Gaither sidelined with a foot injury and lower back pain.
“Yes, they played great,” Harbaugh said. “I just think Oniel Cousins stepping in there after all the work he’s put in for almost two seasons, to see it pay off like that as a coach, that’s what makes you feel good.
“You work with a guy, you’re not really sure, but you want him to do well so badly, and he goes in there and does it. Michael Oher going over to the left side, the guys in the middle picking up the slack, Ben Grubbs playing so well, that’s a good thing.”
Another positive development unfolded for the Ravens’ prospects Monday when Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell announced that he planned to play his normal starters Thursday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars even though his undefeated team has already clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs.
“Yeah, there were some conflicting reports on that,” Harbaugh said regarding the Colts’ plans. “So, I assume that they will do that and we expect them to do that, but that’s up to them. They’ve got to do whatever’s best for their team.”
The Ravens (7-6) are tied with the Miami Dolphins (7-6) and the New York Jets (7-6), but trail the Jaguars (7-6) by a half-game for the sixth and final wild-card spot in the AFC. The Jaguars (6-3) currently own a superior conference record to Baltimore (6-4), owning that tiebreaker.
So, the Ravens have a strong rooting interest for the Colts.
“I don’t know if I can go there,” Harbaugh said with a smile when asked about his interest in Thursday night’s game. “Sure, yeah, we’re interested and in all the games in the AFC, especially those teams right around where we are, but we’re most interested in how we play.
“That’s the bottom line. That’s what we have to concern ourselves with. Sure, we’ll be watching the game. There’s no doubt.”
Harbaugh acknowledged that he has studied the tiebreaker of conference records, which he expects to be the primary one separating the competitors with so many teams involved in the wild-card conversation.
The Ravens close out the regular season with three remaining games against the Chicago Bears (5-8), Pittsburgh Steelers (6-7) and the Oakland Raiders (4-9).
In the crowded pack of AFC wild-card contenders, the Ravens have the best remaining schedule against teams with a combined record of 15-24.
Meanwhile, the Jets’ remaining opponents have a combined record of 28-11, the Jaguars’ opponents are 23-16, the Dolphins’ opponents are 18-21 and the Broncos’ remaining games are against teams with a combined mark of 16-23.
In order to probably assure themselves of a second consecutive trip to the postseason, the Ravens can’t afford to lose any more games.
“If we don’t take care of business against the Chicago Bears, first and foremost, which is a very good football team coming in here, it’s not going to matter what happens in those other games,” Harbaugh said. “So that’s our job.”
The Ravens opened the season on a three-game winning streak.
Since that September success, though, the Ravens have yet to win even two games in a row.
They have followed a pattern over the past seven weeks where they’ve won one followed by a loss every time.
After tying a franchise record for most points scored Sunday, the Ravens’ new challenge is maintaining a high standard and building some consistency.
“It was great to go out there and score 48 points and shut that team down to three points and have all these yards, but we understand that it means nothing if we can’t come back and duplicate it the following week,” veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “We understand and realize that from this point on, we’re in a three-game playoff and we have to win those three games.”
Both the Denver Broncos (8-5) and the Jaguars lost Sunday, which provided a boost to the Ravens’ playoff outlook.
Now, the Ravens need to win out and get some assistance along the way.
“It’s good to get a win and get some help from other teams,” nose guard Kelly Gregg said. “More importantly, we have to win two in a row. That’s what we’re focused on now.”
Heading into the Lions game last week, Harbaugh met with several key veterans to discuss strategy for making the playoffs.
An overriding message from middle linebacker Ray Lewis was to enjoy the hunt.
“This is December football, this is something that me and coach talked about,” Lewis said. “I told him, ‘This is the greatest time that you’ll ever have in football, December.’ The playoffs are getting close. Just come out and have a good time playing the game.”
That theme from Lewis’ insight resonated with Harbaugh, who expects the older players to teach the younger guys how to conduct themselves in a playoff race.
“The point was that they were going to have to lead the way in December, and it was going to start in practice,” Harbaugh said. “We told the young guys, ‘Just follow the vets. Watch what the vets do. They’ve been here before. Do what they do.’
“Ray’s point was, ‘You’re going to remember these Decembers for the rest of your life.’ He’s had a lot of seasons, and I don’t think he remembers every play, but I think he remembers every December that they were in the hunt. That’s what he’s basically saying: ‘These are valuable, don’t take this for granted.’”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.