Three years ago, the 9-6 Ravens played the 6-9 Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium on New Year’s Eve in Week 17. With a win, which was widely expected, the Ravens would clinch a playoff spot on the season’s final day.
Of course, the Ravens afternoon of promise soon turned nightmarish.
They fell down by 14 points twice but later rallied to take the lead for the first time with under nine minutes to play. And on 4th and 12 on the game’s final drive, Andy Dalton threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd to cap one of the league’s craziest moments of the season. It sent the Bills to the playoffs and keep the Ravens on their couches in January.
Sunday, a similar situation is at hand. The Ravens, at 10-5, need a win over the 4-10-1 Bengals to guarantee themselves a playoff berth. There are other options for the Ravens to get in, but they’re not ready to take that chance.
“I don’t think we really mentioned that game at all, period,” safety Chuck Clark said. “But I do, personally, remember that game. It’s the same situation that’s ahead of us right now -- fighting for a spot in the playoffs. Same team, not the same field, but it’s something that’s definitely in the back of your mind. But we keep moving and we deal with the task that’s at hand this week. The game that happened three years ago has no control on this one.”
The Ravens’ playoff scenarios for Sunday are relatively straightforward. If they win, they’ll be in the playoffs for a third straight season.
Or, with a Browns loss to the Steelers or a Colts loss to the Jaguars, the Ravens will make the playoffs. If any of those scenarios play out, they’ll enter the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the sport and certainly a matchup nightmare for a division winner.
Scoreboard-watching won’t be an option for the Ravens, for the first time in weeks. Sunday, the Ravens control their own destiny for the first time in a month.
“The only thing I’m worried about is the Ravens playing like the Ravens, us executing on all phases -- offense, defense, special teams -- and getting ready for us to play some winning football in January because we control our own destiny right now -- not any other team does,” outside linebacker Pernell McPhee said. “It doesn’t matter who we play in the first round. Just as long as we just take care of our business and just get ready for the first round.”
About a month ago, as the coronavirus-depleted Ravens walked off the field after a 19-14 loss to the Steelers, they knew they’d have to win at least four of their final five games to make the playoffs.
As of Sunday, they’ve held up that end of the bargain. But a 10-win regular season might not be enough, as one of the 10-win teams in the AFC (of the Ravens, Colts, Browns, Titans and Dolphins) will be sitting at home in January.
On paper, the Ravens should waltz into the playoffs. Earlier this season, they beat the Bengals 27-3 in Baltimore and that was when they had first overall pick Joe Burrow.
But in 2017, the Ravens beat the Bengals 20-0, too.
“I don’t think I have to do any selling at all to our guys,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Our guys watch the tape. They know the Bengals. We always have tough games against the Bengals -- win or lose. I believe our guys always play hard, regardless. It’s just a matter of how well we play.”
The Ravens need a win Sunday to make the playoffs. That’s not correct, theoretically, but when the Colts are facing the 1-14 Jaguars and the Browns are facing a Steelers team with Ben Roethlisberger on the bench, it may as well be.
“They say the winners are in December, but I truly believe when January comes, that’s when the true football players show up and show out,” McPhee said. “I haven’t played in a January game since 2014, so I’m really excited to play in a January game. Hopefully, I can show off my talent, that I still have something left in the tank.”