OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — Finishing unbeaten at home won’t be nearly as satisfying for the Baltimore Ravens unless they can achieve another franchise first: going undefeated in the AFC North.
The Ravens already have swept Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Beating Cincinnati for a second time on Sunday will make them a perfect 6-0 within the division. More importantly, a victory will give Baltimore (11-4) the AFC North title, a first-round bye in the postseason and at least one home playoff game.
“What it would mean, obviously, is that we would be division champs,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “That’s the opportunity that we have. If you go undefeated at home and win all the games in your division, you’re probably going to be in pretty good shape at the end of the year no matter what else happens.”
Baltimore beat the Bengals 31-24 at home on Nov. 20, but pulling off an encore won’t be easy. Not only are the Ravens 3-4 on the road, they’ve lost two straight in Cincinnati and five of the last six. Plus, the Bengals (9-6) will earn a wild-card berth with a win.
There is no understating the importance of this game for Baltimore, which is trying to get another home game and momentum for the postseason.
“We’re on course to be as good as we can be,” Harbaugh said. “We have a game this week. We don’t have to play any games that are behind us, and we don’t have to play any games that are in the future. We have to play this one. Obviously, it’s got major ramifications for what’s in front of us, so that’s our focus.”
This is the fourth straight season the Ravens have made the playoffs under Harbaugh. In the previous three, Baltimore qualified as a wild-card team and found the road to the Super Bowl too difficult to negotiate.
Opening with a bye and a home game would be far simpler a path to negotiate.
“Playing at home can help us get closer to the prize,” middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “That’s the real incentive right now. We’re in the dance. We’ll go where we have to go. But playing at (home) for any game would be a good, good thing.”
The Ravens never before went 8-0 at home, and they’d love the chance to add another win or two to the ledger.
“That’s what we’re trying to get accomplished,” Harbaugh said.
To get another home game, the Ravens will have to reverse an annoying trend on the road. In their four defeats, Baltimore committed a total of 10 turnovers and averaged a paltry 12.75 points per game.
Harbaugh said his team’s problems in away games have nothing to do with preparation.
“I think we’ve got a good routine. It’s proven,” he said. “We’re going to try play better than we have in the games we
didn’t win on the road. That’s the main thing. Obviously, turnovers were the main factor in some of those games. Those are the things that will be our focus — the things you have to do to win a game, whether you’re at home or on the road.”
Baltimore could be without guard Marshal Yanda, who left Saturday’s win over Cleveland with rib and thigh contusions.
If he can’t play, he will be replaced on the right side by Andre Gurode.
“They’re good bruises,” Harbaugh acknowledged. “We’ll see where that goes.”
Cornerback Cary Williams and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe received concussions against the Browns. Their status is uncertain.
“Both are looking pretty decent today, but with concussions you never really know,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll have to see when and if they get cleared. We’ll keep our fingers crossed on that.”
Kick returner David Reed tore the ACL in his left knee Saturday and is out for the year. Placekicker Billy Cundiff, who sat out Saturday’s game with a left calf injury, is progressing and could be ready for the Bengals. If he can play, the Ravens will cut kicker Shayne Graham, Harbaugh said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)