For all intents and purposes, the last five Ravens games have been playoff games.
Just over a month ago, Baltimore's loss to Pittsburgh meant it would have to win at least four, and perhaps five, of its final five games of the regular season.
Sunday, it won a fifth game in a row and clinched a playoff spot.
With their dominating 38-3 win over the Bengals in Cincinnati, the Ravens capped their regular season with an 11-5 record and, more importantly, as one of the hottest teams in the NFL.
“We faced a lot of adversity,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “People doubted us a lot throughout the season, because we weren’t having the year that we had last year, but it’s ‘Any Given Sunday,’ and our team fought through that, and we showed the world we’re here to play, and we’ve just got to keep it going. A lot of focus, everyone just do their assignment, and that’s what it was today.”
The Ravens began the season 5-1 and reached 6-2, before slipping to 6-5 after a COVID-depleted team lost to the Steelers in early December.
A year ago, they were resting starters in Week 17 before a bye week in the AFC Wild Card Round. This year, they've had to fight since Thanksgiving to make the playoffs with little to no margin for error.
“Very different situation than this year, we definitely had to earn it,” safety Chuck Clark said. “Since that second Steelers game we had, we knew that every game we had was a playoff game.”
The benefit is clear, at least now, that the Ravens are already in playoff mode. There’s no gearing up needed.
Of course, that can be said now when the Ravens don’t have the option of resting players before the AFC Divisional Round.
“I think you just kind of take it as you find it,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I think you can make an argument about anything. I like where we’re at right now, I love where this team is at right now, I love us going into the playoffs in this scenario at this time.”
The Ravens are set to face the AFC South Champions, either the Titans or the Colts depending on how the games turn out Sunday evening. They’ve faced both of those teams already this season and lost to the Titans but beat the Colts.
Those games weren’t playoff games. Their next one will be, even though the last five games have felt like the postseason anyways.
“I want to play in the big games, always,” running back J.K. Dobbins said. “They say big-time players make plays in big time games. I want to see if I’m a big-time player. That’s what I want to see. I want to go to these big games and do anything I can to help the team win. I’ve been dreaming about the Super Bowl, the NFL playoffs, since I was a little kid. Now it’s finally here.”