OWINGS MILLS – With the emotions of a victorious Harbaugh Bowl and a rare sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers already behind them, the Baltimore Ravens are bracing for a familiar, recurring challenge for the remainder of the season. How will they handle success after three previous losses to losing teams immediately following big wins?
To earn the elusive home-field advantage granted to the top seed in the AFC, the Ravens will have to take care of business against teams they're expected to beat.
Only one of the Ravens' upcoming five opponents sports a winning record, and Baltimore travels to play those emerging Cincinnati Bengals in the season finale after defeating them last week at home.
For the next month, the Ravens (8-3) will square off with teams with losing records starting with the Cleveland Browns next Sunday followed by the winless Indianapolis Colts, the slumping San Diego Chargers and the Browns again.
"It's an opportunity going forward, it positions us really well," Harbaugh said. "Now, we have to conquer a game in Cleveland, one that's been plaguing us all year. You've all written about it extensively. It's a big challenge we have, but we have an opportunity now to get healthy. And that's what we have to take advantage of in the next couple of days."
The Ravens are competing with the Steelers to remain atop the AFC North division, and the title would grant them at least one home playoff game.
If the Ravens can finish with a superior record to the New England Patriots and the Steelers, it would ensure playing all of their playoff games at M&T Bank Stadium.
That could provide an easier path to the Super Bowl considering the Ravens have won 16 of their last 17 home games, including a 6-0 mark this season and nine consecutive wins dating back to last year.
"Obviously playing here, we're pretty tough to beat because we've got a great atmosphere the fans created," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We haven't had one since I've been here. It would really be beneficial to get one."
The home-field advantage conversation grew new life after the Ravens' 16-6 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving.
"Well, it's probably too early because you have five games left," Harbaugh said. "But it's December football, and that's when you start thinking about things like that. The only thing we need to be focused on is getting healthy, first of all, and the Cleveland Browns.
"That's something we've struggled with on the road, and we have to go conquer that. That's going to be a really tough task. I know all of our guys are going to focus on that and take care of first things first."
In order to do so, they'll need to handle a Cleveland team they swept last year.
With embarrassing losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks and a setback against the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens have proven that they're vulnerable against teams they were favored to beat.
That has raised questions about whether the Ravens overlooked teams that were regarded as inferior to them.
"We've always had focus," Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Sometimes the game or the game plan gets away from us and we've given away a few games. As long we always keep the game plan in our grasp and do what we do best, play Ravens football, feed every defense a lot of Rice, I think we've got a good chance of making a good run at this thing. When we get away from ourselves, that's when you never know what's going to happen."
Suggs was referencing how the Ravens abandoned the running game and star running back Ray Rice in losses to Seattle, Jacksonville and Tennessee when they fell behind.
However, the Ravens were stubborn with the run against the 49ers' top-ranked run defense even though Rice finished with just 59 yards on 21 carries. That kept the defense honest and created manageable third-down situations.
The Ravens haven't played a home playoff game since the 2006 season when they lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC divisional round following a first-round bye.
"That's key," Suggs said. "You know when you get home-field advantage you have a good chance of making it to the big dance. I think we have the best fans in the world. We win all of our home games and that's because it's loud and because our fans give us the energy, and we want to play well for them.
"We haven't had a home playoff game since coach has been here. We just want to take it one game at a time, but that's definitely an overall goal: win the division, get it at home-field."
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens have gone 8-4 in December games dating back to the 2008 season.
"It's a long season, and you all know November and December football is tricky," Suggs said. "You can't afford to give any away. You have to win the games you're supposed to win, and try to steal the ones that you aren't.
"We're going to enjoy this win and after the long weekend we're going to come back and get ready for Cleveland. November and December football is very important, and we're just going to focus on the next point.
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