- Five remaining weeks, four powerhouses in the conference and only one team will emerge as the top seed in the AFC.
Deadlocked in terms of record with three other AFC squads vying for home-field advantage in the playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens' primary competitors all won their games Sunday.
Now, the Ravens (8-3) trail the Houston Texans (8-3) and the New England Patriots (8-3) in the chase for home-field advantage due to conference record with the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) ranking fourth after being swept by Baltimore this season.
Under NFL tiebreaker procedures, the Texans are ranked first due to a 7-2 AFC mark followed by the Patriots at 6-2 and the Ravens at 5-2, although they do own a head-to-head win over the Texans.
The dash to the finish line shapes up as a tough proving ground with little to no room for error to keep pace.
"We expect it to be a tight race," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We just want to uphold our end of the bargain. I think what you have to concern yourself with is winning. That's the bottom line for us. We can't be concerned with what the other teams do.
"We have to be concerned with what we do. It's really not a long-term proposition. It's this week, and that's what you have to focus on. This week becomes everything. It becomes all-consuming in a tight race like this."
Of the Ravens' remaining five opponents, only the Cincinnati Bengals have a winning record. And the Cleveland Browns (4-7), the winless Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers and the Bengals have a combined record of 15-29.
The Browns have lost four of their past five. The Ravens, though, don't sound as if they'll be overlooking the Browns on Sunday in Cleveland.
"It doesn't matter how many wins and losses they have," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "They always play good against us. It's going to be a dogfight, so we better bring it. We can't afford to have a letdown."
The Ravens have conquered nearly every team on their schedule that owns a winning record, including the archrival Steelers, the New York Jets, Texans, Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers. The Tennessee Titans (6-5) are the only team Baltimore has lost to with a winning record.
However, their greatest vulnerability has been teams with losing records, losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Seattle Seahawks. Each of their three defeats followed an emotional victory.
"We certainly acknowledge that those three losses were not good performances," Harbaugh said. "They are there. They are on the record. Now we face a similar challenge this week, but a tougher challenge because now we have to go play a team in our division.
"The Browns have had some real heartbreaking losses. They have been within a point or two in the fourth quarter in most all their games so far this year,
and they have played really well. We just have to play better than we have in those three circumstances you are talking about."
The Ravens are well-rested after three days off following their 16-6 win on Thanksgiving over the 49ers, and hope middle linebacker Ray Lewis will return soon from a right turf toe injury that sidelined him for the past two games. Without Lewis, the Ravens defeated the Bengals and 49ers within a five-day span.
"They were two huge wins in five days, you can't say enough about it," Johnson said. "It's a tough thing to do. We played a really good game against the Niners, but we're moving on. We need to get win No. 9 and we're going to try and get it this week.
"It's good to be in the lead, and it's good to have the wins we do, especially against our divisional opponents. But if we don't handle ourselves well going down the stretch, it means nothing."
Referencing the Ravens' Super Bowl ambitions, defensive end Cory Redding said the team has eight games left to play, not five. And he said the Ravens have one formidable opponent to overcome: themselves.
"It ain't nobody else who's left on our schedule, it's us," Redding said. "As long as we continue to beat the negatives, beat the things that can hinder us from getting a win and overcome the mistakes we make, we'll get those victories. We've got to beat the things that can hurt us, and that's us."
Ravens notebook: R. Lewis 'furthest away' from returning for Browns game
OWINGS MILLS - Baltimore Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis is the "furthest away" from returning in time for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns among the injured players, according to coach John Harbaugh.
Lewis has missed the past two games with a turf toe injury suffered against the Seattle Seahawks.
Lewis was extremely limited in practice last week and was listed as questionable on the injury report heading into the Ravens' 16-6 win over the San Francisco 49ers. A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Lewis remains the Ravens' leading tackler.
"Ray is probably the guy that's the furthest away, if you're going to look at all the guys, but, then again, you never know," Harbaugh said. "Ray has a sprained toe, turf toe kind of thing. Those are a little more unpredictable. I'm hopeful. I've used that word before. I think he's got a real good chance."
Harbaugh was more optimistic about the chances of inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (hamstring, groin) and cornerback Chris Carr (back) playing this week after being sidelined against the 49ers.
With extra time off over the weekend after their Thanksgiving game, the Ravens are getting healthier.
"The rest part of it is big, the fact that all those guys are going to get an extra three or four days of rest and more time to recover because it's kind of a cumulative process in terms of recovery," Harbaugh said. "Ellerbe looks good, Chris Carr looks good. Most all those guys looked good coming into Monday."
Ellerbe is upbeat about his chances of playing Sunday despite a recurring hamstring injury that has prevented him from playing in five of the past six games.
"Hopefully, trying to," Ellerbe said of his prospects. "Pushing for it."
Ellerbe was disappointed that he wasn't able to start again at middle linebacker after standing in for an injured Lewis against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"That was a big game," Ellerbe said. "I wanted to be a part of it. I just wasn't ready."
The Ravens started Albert McClellan at weakside inside linebacker and shifted Jameel McClain to middle linebacker.
Ellerbe said he had to weigh the risk of whether he would aggravate the injury and possibly be out for several more games.
"You have to think long-term because it is a business and I didn't want to go out there halfway healthy and hurt the team," Ellerbe said. "When I go out there, I want to be able to contribute, not be a factor in us losing or anything like that. I want to help us win."
Ellerbe remained in town over the weekend to get treatment at the Ravens' training complex.
Ellerbe contributed to the Ravens' win over San Francisco by mentoring McClellan, who started his first NFL game and recorded four tackles.
"I just told him not to think so much, just go over his plays," he said. "As long as he knows his plays, he'll be all right. I'm proud of him."
Ellerbe, McClain and McClellan are all former undrafted free agents.
"We're trying to prove ourselves," Ellerbe said. "We feel like we should have been drafted and we're showing it."
ROSTER MOVES: The Ravens signed a pair of offensive linemen to the practice squad Monday, including the older brother of Carolina Panthers rookie
quarterback Cam Newton.
Center Cecil Newton played collegiately at Tennessee State. The Ravens also signed former Fresno State offensive tackle Kenny Wiggins.
The Ravens had two openings on the eight-man practice squad. They promoted inside linebacker Josh Bynes to the active roster last week, and tackle Austin Howard was signed to the New York Jets' active roster.
The Ravens also tried out offensive lineman Casey Bender on Monday
NOT CLEARED: Defensive tackle Arthur Jones said he's still not cleared to practice after suffering a concussion against the Seattle Seahawks.
NO CHANGE: Harbaugh affirmed that cornerback Lardarius Webb will remain the primary punt returner. Webb is averaging 7.2 yards with a long return of 29 yards and 12 fair catches.
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