When the Ravens clash with the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, there's more at stake than making a push toward the playoffs. It's about making a statement.
This represents the Ravens' chance to beat one of the hottest teams in the NFL. This is an opportunity to take down an elite quarterback. And above all, this is their stage to knock off the defending Super Bowl champions.
For 13 games, the Ravens have tried to show they're a championship-caliber team. On Sunday against the sizzling Saints (10-3), they can certainly prove it.
"If you want to be the best," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, "you've got to beat the best."
The Ravens (9-4) are off to their best start under Harbaugh and are close to clinching a playoff berth for the third straight season, something that's never been accomplished before in team history.
But the Ravens' nerve-wracking and often frustrating style of play has turned the time leading up to " Festivus" — their fans' moniker for playoffs — into a state of restlessness. Their offense has looked timid, failing to score a second-half touchdown in four straight games. Their defense has looked vulnerable, giving up a fourth-quarter lead in eight games this season (including Monday night's 34-28 overtime win at Houston).
Some could even argue the Ravens lack a signature victory this season. Their season-opening win at the New York has been tainted by the Jets' recent free-fall, and their last-minute win at Pittsburgh came against a Steelers team without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
There would be no asterisk placed on a win over a New Orleans team that's hit full stride. The Saints have won six consecutive games — the second-longest current win streak — and have scored 30 or more points in five straight.
"You definitely want to see where you measure up against the team that won the world championship," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said.
When it comes to defeating quarterbacks who've won a world championship, the Ravens have failed to measure up.
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 1-12 against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, including 0-10 in the regular season. They've lost to Roethlisberger (five times), Peyton Manning (three), Tom Brady (twice), Brett Favre (once) and Eli Manning (once). Their only win came against Brady in last season's playoffs.
Asked where Brees stacked up against the likes of Brady and Peyton Manning, Suggs said "in my eyes, he's better."
"You can't define greatness," Suggs said of Brees. "He's a great quarterback. Whenever you've got a quarterback that can break NFL records, it's kind of good."
If the Ravens want to make some noise in the playoffs, they'll likely have to beat elite quarterbacks. They could have a first-round showdown with Peyton Manning (if the Colts can overtake Jacksonville in the AFC South) and might face either Brady or Roethlisberger in the divisional round.
Defeating Brees presents the same challenge. The reigning Super Bowl Most Valuable Player is second in the NFL in touchdown passes (28) and completion percentage (69.0) while ranking third in passing yards (3,855).
"He's definitely in the elite class of those types of quarterbacks," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "I've always been a fan of Drew and I have great, great, great respect for him."
The Ravens, who are currently the AFC's No. 5 seed, have a shot at capturing a playoff berth on Sunday, although they need some help. The Ravens can clinch by beating New Orleans along with an Indianapolis loss or tie, Miami loss or tie and a Kansas City loss.
In the big picture, today's game against the Saints is far from a must-win in terms of getting a wild-card spot. The Ravens still can earn a playoff berth by beating Cleveland and Cincinnati in their final two games.
But the Ravens know the importance of getting hot heading into the postseason.
"I just think momentum is everything, because momentum is what builds confidence," Lewis said. "And once you get that on your side, then it doesn't matter what you go through or how you go through it."
There's no bigger momentum-builder left on the regular-season schedule than the Saints.
"When you put it in perspective, they're the team everybody's chasing," running back Ray Rice said. "They're the defending Super Bowl champs. Everybody's trying to take what they have."
The Ravens are also chasing that elusive complete game, one where the offense and defense put together convincing performances for four quarters.
Rice said the Ravens are "top 5 in the league" as far as talent, but they haven't reached their potential — yet.
"That's a scary but great feeling," Rice said. "If you look at this team and say, 'Wow, this team hasn't played its best yet and they're sitting here at 9-4.' That's scary because you don't want it to come back and bite you in the behind. But, at the same time, you look at the upside and it's a team of destiny."