OWINGS MILLS — Basking in the afterglow of a satisfying victory that earned the Baltimore Ravens a rare AFC North crown, a home playoff game and a coveted first-round bye, coach John Harbaugh allowed himself a few moments to enjoy the journey.
“The plane ride home, I have to admit, was pretty cool,” Harbaugh said Monday one day after the Ravens’ 24-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in their regular-season finale. “The locker room was really cool. Those are the moments that you really just never are going to forget.”
The AFC North champion Ravens (12-4) also regard the time off and the ability to get a multitude of injured players healthy for an AFC divisional round playoff game as invaluable.
As the second seed in the AFC, the Ravens now have the luxury of time off to get players like wide receiver Anquan Boldin (meniscus knee surgery), linebacker Jameel McClain (sprained knee), cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Tom Zbikowski (concussions), linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (sprained quadriceps), kicker Billy Cundiff (left calf) and offensive guard Marshal Yanda (bruised ribs) healed up.
If not for the win over the Bengals, the Ravens would be playing in a wild-card game this weekend at less than 100 percent.
Instead, the Ravens’ next football game isn’t until Jan. 15 at M&T Bank Stadium against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Texans or the Denver Broncos. And the Ravens are undefeated in eight home games this season.
“It’s a great win in a lot of ways,” Harbaugh said. “The No. 1 thing we need to do is get healthy. It’s a bonus, it’s earned.”
In the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year as a wild-card squad, the Ravens are the lone NFL team to win a playoff game each of the past three seasons. However, they haven’t advanced to the Super Bowl since the 2000 season when they claimed the Vince Lombardi trophy.
Having won four of seven playoff games under Harbaugh, the Ravens’ season has ended on the road each of the past three years.
“We have an opportunity to take advantage of the week that we haven’t had in the past to try and improve ourselves,” Harbaugh said. “I think that’s the plus of having a bye. That’s where you have a little bit of a leg up, plus you get a home game. Every year has its own character.
“Every year it’s really hard to do. Every year is special. This year takes on a different character for the Ravens than the last three years. This is the most special; this is the one we’re in. This is the one we had the high hopes for.”
Due to the status they earned by taking care of business against the talented Bengals, the Ravens have the prospects of a seemingly easier road to Indianapolis, site of the Super Bowl.
They only have to win two playoff games to get there instead of three. And they get to play at least one playoff game at home where they haven’t lost since Dec. 5, 2010 and have won 18 of their past 19 games.
“It’s valuable, man,” Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “I’m looking forward to the rest and sitting at home and watching the first week of playoffs with my babies. You know, that’s the biggest thing. To be division champs, that’s your goal.”
Now that the Ravens are division champions, they are aiming toward an AFC championship and world title.
“It’s one down and two to go in terms of championships,” Harbaugh said. “They’ll be no taking anything for granted, that’s for sure.”
Five years ago, the Ravens went 13-3 and won the division title and were seeded second.
Their season ended at home, though, as they fell to the Indianapolis Colts despite limiting Peyton Manning’s offense to five field goals.
“I’ve got a totally different team,” middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “You’re not dealing with the same dynamic we were a couple years ago. We’ve got a totally different dynamic with a different vision.”
“So, every step is going to be something totally new for us. Our coaches will approach it right and most importantly our players will approach it right.”The Ravens went unbeaten in six division games this season, including a rare sweep of the Steelers.
And they haven’t been seeded this high for five seasons.
“To end the regular season this way is very humbling because of the things you go through the course of a season — the highs, the lows, the ups and downs,” said running back Ray Rice, who rushed for 191 yards and two long touchdown runs against Cincinnati. “To be able win the division on the road to secure a home playoff game, the feeling in that locker room was like no other. This bye week is going to be huge. We know what a bye week does. It gets people healthy.”
The Ravens plan to utilize this week to get injured players as much treatment as possible, strength and conditioning, self-scouting and preparing for the schemes of the Texans, Steelers and Broncos.
The players will practice only twice this week, working Wednesday and Thursday on the field. The Ravens will be off Friday, Saturday and Sunday before returning to work Monday after learning who they’ll face next.
“Some of these teams we already started on last week,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll continue on that. We’ll be breaking down the three teams that we have the potential to play a week from Sunday. And then we’ll start in earnest, as soon as we know, in terms of developing the actual game plan. That will start on Sunday.”
Players began watching game video on their computers of the Bengals game on the flight home from Cincinnati.
I came into the building this morning and I think half our team was here already, in the training room, in the weight room, getting a little breakfast, just being around watching tape," Harbaugh said. "I think their whole mindset, as expressed to me by Jarret Johnson on the plane, along with a couple of other guys, is to be the best football team we can be next Sunday at one o’clock. That’s what our team’s thinking about right now."
In the Harbaugh era, the Ravens are 4-0 following byes.
“Just because we are at home doesn’t mean that anyone is giving the game to us,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We need to go out there and play hard. We need to win a couple more games this year.”