OWINGS MILLS – Following a clutch overtime victory Sunday night over the Pittsburgh Steelers that didn’t lack for dramatics or stakes, the Baltimore Ravens found themselves in an unusual position.
Instead of lamenting a costly dropped pass or an untimely penalty or a flubbed field goal, the Ravens had suddenly reversed their trend of narrow losses.
Losers of all three of their previous games decided by three points or less this season, the Ravens (6-5) are banking on their 20-17 ugly win over the reigning Super Bowl champions becoming a building block as they compete to earn a wild-card playoff spot in the crowded AFC.
Perhaps all of the Ravens’ previous experience in close games might provide them a boost.
“If they are, we’re going to be in good shape,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday.
“We’ve been in plenty of those tight games. We know how to play a tight game, and winning a tight game against that kind of team was huge for us. We’ve won our share of them, and we’ve lost our share.”
The Ravens have lost five games by a grand total of 23 points after winning their first three contests. Their average margin of defeat is a mere 5.75 points.
Now, they’re in the thick of the playoff hunt despite only winning three of their past eight games.
One game behind the Denver Broncos (7-4) in the wild-card standings, the Ravens own a head-to-head tiebreaker over them.
The Ravens are tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5) and the Steelers (6-5), but the Jaguars have a superior conference record.
From now on, the Ravens can’t afford any more stumbles. Especially heading into anticipated wins against also-rans like the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears and the Oakland Raiders sandwiched around demanding games like next Monday night’s matchup against the Green Bay Packers and a Dec. 27 rematch with the Steelers.
“Our season was in the balance when we stepped on that field, point-blank,” wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “We had to win the game. That’s the way it’s going to be from here on out. We have to win every game.
“It will be satisfying come Jan. 3 or Jan. 4 if we’re one of the six teams in the playoffs. Until then, we’re going to continue to chop wood.”
Against the Steelers, the Ravens took advantage of the absences of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (concussion) and safety Troy Polamalu (knee).
Between running back Ray Rice’s 44-yard catch on fourth down to set up Billy Cundiff’s game-tying field goal and rookie outside linebacker-defensive end Paul Kruger intercepting former Steelers third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon in overtime to lead to Cundiff’s game-winning kick, the Ravens made the key plays.
“We knew it was going to come down to the wire,” middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “Last year, we lost games in the last 10 seconds. This time, we came out and made some good plays. We kept our composure as a team and we did great, no matter what the circumstances were.”
The gutsiest play and call was the Ravens deciding to go for it on fourth down with five yards to go at their own 46-yard line trailing by three points after Dixon’s 24-yard touchdown run.
The Ravens thought about punting it away, but Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron changed their minds after calling a timeout to discuss the situation.
The gamble paid off as Rice dashed away from linebacker James Farrior and spun away from several other defenders.
“Let it ride,” Lewis said. “We have one of the most electric young weapons on offense in the game in Ray Rice. When you’ve got that kind of weapon, use it.”
Following the game, offensive guard Ben Grubbs referred to the win as the rebirth of the Ravens’ season.
They’ll know in about five weeks if he’s correct.
And their Dec. 27 game in Pittsburgh figures to be critical in the playoff race.
Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin was fired-up after his three-game winning streak over the Ravens was halted.
“We will not go gently,” he said. “We will unleash hell here in December because we have to. We won’t go in a shell. We’ll go into attack mode because that’s what’s required.”
A win over the Steelers is especially meaningful for the Ravens for reasons that go way beyond playoff implications.
“It was big, there’s no denying it,” Harbaugh said. “It was big for a lot of reasons. It was the Steelers. They’re in our division. They’re our rival.”
The Ravens have a favorable remaining schedule with arguably two tough games left against the Packers and the Steelers.
Their next five opponents’ combined record is 22-33.
During this unpredictable season for the Ravens after making it to the AFC championship game last year, nothing can be taken for granted.
“You have some devastating losses along the way and in a one-week period everybody feels like, ‘Well, you’re not this, you’re not that,’” Harbaugh said. “Then you win a couple of games and you’re all this and you’re all that. It’s really a long season in this league. It’s a series of sprints.
“Maybe it’s not a marathon. Maybe it’s one sprint after another that you’ve got to line up and run every single week. We’ve got another one this week against the Packers, and it’s going to be just as meaningful, just as important as the last one.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.