Despite a demoralizing defeat in Week 16, there are still a number of ways the Baltimore Ravens can earn the final AFC playoff spot.
The simplest scenarios require the defending Super Bowl champions to march into Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday and hand the AFC North-champion Cincinnati Bengals their first home loss of the season.
A win by the Ravens (8-7) and a loss by either San Diego or Miami is the most likely path to extending their season, but Baltimore can also clinch regardless of the outcome if Miami, San Diego and Pittsburgh all lose. If the Ravens, Dolphins and Chargers win, Miami will claim the wild-card spot.
The Bengals (10-5), who still have a shot at a first-round bye, will not be making things easy on the Ravens by resting their starters.
“We’re used to these guys,” hobbled Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco said. “They’re a good defense. They have been for a few years now. It’s always a good test to play a division opponent in their place. They have a lot to play for. We have a lot to play for. It’s going to be a good game, a good test.”
The Bengals need to win and have New England lose at home against Buffalo in order to hurdle the Patriots for the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
“We want to defend home and make sure we win,” Bengals cornerback Pacman Jones told the team’s official website. “If it was my choice, I don’t want Baltimore to make it. We’ve got to make sure we defend the house and play all four quarters.”
The Ravens made things more difficult on themselves with Sunday’s 41-7 home loss to the Patriots.
Flacco, who is working through a left knee injury suffered against Detroit on Dec. 16, went 22 of 38 for 260 yards with two interceptions. He wore a knee brace, but said the injury had no impact on his performance. He plans to wear it again this Sunday.
“I’m going to do it the same way,” Flacco told the team’s official website. “I really just want to make sure I can be as safe as I can moving forward so nothing crazy happens. I’m pretty comfortable with it. It’s not ideal, but it is what it is and it’s not that big of an issue.”
After the Ravens beat the Bengals 20-17 on Nov. 10 in Baltimore, the change of venue for this one is significant. The Ravens are 2-5 on the road this season, while the Bengals are 7-0 in Cincinnati. The Bengals have averaged 43.5 points over their last four at home, including Sunday’s 42-14 division-clinching win over Minnesota.
Andy Dalton threw for four touchdowns and 366 yards against the Vikings, connecting with wide receiver A.J. Green on two of the scores. Green had seven catches for 97 yards, and both are in position to set single-season franchise yardage records this week.
Dalton needs 117 yards to pass Carson Palmer’s 2007 mark of 4,131. With 76 receiving yards, Green will break Chad Johnson’s record of 1,440 set in the same season.
“The goals are good, but we’re fighting for a bigger picture,” Green said. “When I’m done with this game, maybe it will (mean something), but right now I’m trying to continue to get better.”
Dalton, who has 31 touchdown passes, could also establish a single-season record if he throws at least two Sunday. Palmer had 32 in 2005.
“It shows what we’ve been able to accomplish this year. I think that only happens if we’ve been winning games and doing some good things,” Dalton said. “Personally, it’s cool to be close to those records, but like you said, wins are what ultimately matters.”
The Ravens’ offense hasn’t been nearly as effective, scoring one TD over the last eight quarters. However, coach John Harbaugh’s team has always responded after lopsided losses. Since 2008, they’re 4-0 under him in games following defeats of 20 points or more.
“I think that’s part of who we are,” Harbaugh said. “If you’ve been watching us all year, you would know that. You would understand that about us. It’s a one-game season as far as we’re concerned.”
Baltimore is up against a Bengals defense that is ranked sixth in the NFL against both the run and the pass despite losing key players to season-ending injuries. Cincinnati has been without defensive tackle Geno Atkins (torn ACL) for the last six games and cornerback Leon Hall (torn Achilles) for the previous eight.
Baltimore ended last year’s regular season with a 23-17 loss to the Bengals - the Ravens’ fourth straight defeat in Cincinnati.