Ravens need to go full speed ahead against Bengals

Team can't risk losing momentum by resting players in regular-season finale

December 25, 2012|Peter Schmuck

It took just one big turnaround performance by the Ravens — and the fact that they finally clinched the AFC North title — to spawn a debate over how they should approach their final regular-season game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Should they go all out to win on the off chance that the New England Patriots lose a home game against the Miami Dolphins and squander the No. 3 conference playoff seed? Or should they take the pedal off the metal and try to make sure they are as healthy as possible for their home playoff opener the following weekend?

Don't know why anybody's fretting over this. It's a no-brainer.

The Ravens need to keep on trucking. They need to treat Sunday's game like it's a must-win situation. They need to be that team — like the New York Giants last year — that gets on a roll and stays on a roll all the way through the playoffs.

They showed Sunday that they can beat anybody, even if this year's edition of the Giants didn't look anything like last year's Super Bowl champion. The Ravens need to show this week that the playoff-bound Bengals are no match for them when they're a team in full, and show both the Bengals and the Indianapolis Colts what they might be in for at M&T Bank Stadium in the first round of the playoffs.

The last thing they want to do is display any hint of the vulnerability that was so apparent during the three-game losing streak that had Ravens fans suddenly wondering whether the franchise was still headed in the right direction.

Coach John Harbaugh conceded that there might be circumstances that would allow the Ravens to protect some players, but he stressed that one thing about his team's approach would never change.

"We're going to try and win the game," he said after Sunday's resounding victory allowed the Ravens to consider the alternative.

That's the Harbaugh way. That's why he seldom pulls his main guys when a game is well in hand. That's why he has led the Ravens to the playoffs in all five of his seasons as coach and came up just a dropped pass short of the Super Bowl last year.

He's an old-school, 60-minutes-of-football kind of coach, and that's just what the Ravens need right now to stay focused and head into the postseason with the kind of momentum that can carry a team all the way to the promised land.

Quarterback Joe Flacco is coming off a terrific performance that once again showed that he's at his best when backed into a corner, so the longer he can maintain that mindset and stare down his critics, the deeper the Ravens are likely to get into January and maybe beyond.

In this crazy era of NFL parity, there really are only two gears — forward and reverse. The Ravens have shifted hard in both directions over the course of a very tumultuous season. They can't afford to downshift now.

Obviously, if they run up the score in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium and the outcome is not in doubt, they can move some banged-up players out of harm's way, but that's a less likely scenario than the Patriots laying down at home against the Dolphins while they still could sneak up to the No. 1 or No. 2 seed with a little help.

The landscape doesn't change substantially over the short term whether the Ravens are the No. 3 or No. 4 seed. Either way, they'll play their first postseason game at home and would go on the road against one of the top two AFC seeds if they reach the divisional round.

If they reach the AFC title game again, however, moving up to the No. 3 seed could make a major difference since it would give the Ravens home-field advantage if the No. 4 seed also gets there. The Ravens could even get home-field advantage in the AFC title game as a No. 4 seed if the wild-card team they don't play in the first round makes a run.

If this were just a matter of weighing the seemingly long odds of moving up the playoff pecking order against the benefit derived from resting or protecting some key players, it might make sense to look beyond the Bengals. But this is more about how the Ravens are playing right now and making sure they keep playing that way.

They found their stride. They rebuilt their confidence. They regained their swagger.

Full speed ahead.

It's a no-brainer.


Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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