Ravens Notebook

BALTIMORE – As far as the Baltimore Ravens are concerned, the playoffs essentially launch in earnest next week.

And the Bengals (9-6) are attempting to earn the sixth and final wild-card berth in the AFC by beating the Ravens.

"It's going to be a war, man," Ravens veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "They're fighting for their life. We're fighting for the division. So, it's going to be a playoff game." Provided the Ravens (11-4) complete their first sweep of the AFC North division in franchise history with a win over the Bengals, they'll be assured of playing at least one more game at M&T Bank Stadium.

That's where they finished 8-0 after a fairly lackluster 20-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Christmas Eve.

Considering the Ravens are 3-4 on the road this season, winning this game is imperative. "It's big, man.," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said when asked about the importance of playing at home. "We want a chance at winning, and you've got a better chance to do it when you're at home. And our fans, I consider myself to be a player of the people, and we are our best team when we're in M&T and our fans are rocking. So, we definitely need a home playoff game by any means necessary." There's even a chance the Ravens could secure the top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if the New England Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills next week and Baltimore manages to beat the Bengals for a second time. If the Ravens lose to the Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Browns again, the Steelers would win the division. In order to avoid that scenario, the Ravens will need to play better football after two rough weeks in a row. Although they've now won five of their past six games, the Ravens didn't look good in the second half against the Browns as they allowed 14 unanswered points. That included an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown surrendered to return specialist Josh Cribbs and a Seneca Wallace touchdown pass to tight end Evan Moore. One week after being embarrassed by the San Diego Chargers during a 34-14 loss where the secondary was shredded by Philip Rivers and the run defense gave up three touchdown runs, the Ravens were repeatedly gashed by Browns running back Peyton Hillis for 112 rushing yards on 24 carries. "I think the perfect time to hit on all cylinders is to get in the playoffs," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "The thing that we did now is put ourselves in a great position for the fourth year in a row, being back in the playoffs. Now, it's up to us to go out and finish what we're trying to finish, and that's when you start clicking. "It's one thing to play these great games during the year and whatever but for us now, it's about playing those great games in the playoffs. That's the next step for us." Despite the Ravens' record, their last two impressive wins came against the Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers last month.

And the Ravens were plagued by dropped passes and a special-teams breakdown for their third return allowed for a touchdown this season. That hasn't happened since 2002.

"Sometimes we say it's not perfect and it's not pretty, and it was not," coach John Harbaugh said. "But in this league and this environment against this football team, the Cleveland Brown, they made it tough on a lot of people this year, our guys found a way to win the game at the end and that's what counts. .. I was a little disappointed with some of the drops. It wouldn't have been a game if we'd have converted on third down."

Joe Flacco was intercepted once against the Browns by cornerback Sheldon Brown and twice against the Chargers. However, he doesn't think the Ravens played badly against the Browns.

"San Diego, we just kind of got hit," Flacco said. "They got us. It happens sometimes. In this game, I don't think we didn't play well. I just think we had a couple of plays where we could have done the simple thing better and we would have been perfect. I see where you're coming from just because of the way the game looked, but I don't think we didn't play well."

The Browns are a 4-11 outfit, though. The Bengals are far more formidable. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has passed for 3,166 yards and 20 touchdowns, and talented rookie wide receiver A.J. Green has caught 63 passes for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns. "We have to get better," strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "We have not reached our best point yet. We reach our best point when we hold that trophy up. We have to get back in this thing, and get ready to play football next week."

Enthused about the Ravens' record at home that includes victories in 18 of their past 19 games in Baltimore, Pollard acknowledged the difficulties the team has experienced away from the friendly confines of M&T Bank Stadium. That includes road losses to the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks and the Chargers.

"That's exciting, but we have to fix the other part, though," Pollard said of the undefeated home record. "Next week we're going on the road, into a hostile environment, and they're going to give us their best shot. We're going to get better. We're going to get sound. We're going to iron this out and get ready to play football."

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