Ravens-Bengals game has major ramifications
In order to claim the AFC North division crown, earn an automatic first-round bye and clinch at least the second seed in the AFC playoffs, the Ravens (11-4) will have to go undefeated in the division for the first time. That will require a rare road victory against the Cincinnati Bengals (9-6), an emerging young team headlined by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and rookie wide receiver A.J. Green. The Ravens can also win the division if the PIttsburgh Steelers lose to the Cleveland Browns due to their tiebreaker edge over the Steelers with a sweep of the annual season series.
Undefeated at home this season following their 20-14 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, the Ravens have lost their past two games at Paul Brown Stadium and have fallen in five of their past six trips to Cincinnati.
"What it would mean obviously would be that we would be the division champs," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "And that's the opportunity that we have. If you go undefeated at home and win all the games in your division, you're going to be in pretty good shape at the end of the year no matter what else happens. And we have an opportunity to do that, to split on the road and win all of our games in the division, which would give us a championship." Those are all truisms. However, the Ravens are only 3-4 on the road this season and have lost to the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks and the San Diego Chargers.
There are various familiar reasons why they didn't win those games, including turnovers in Jacksonville, Seattle and San Diego, a vulnerable pass defense against Tennessee and San Diego and not much involvement of star running back Ray Rice in any of those setbacks. The Ravens averaged only 12.7 points in those games and surrendered 23.5 points per loss. Harbaugh didn't chalk up any of the losses to anything specific and said he doesn't plan any changes to preparations at this late stage of the season.
"I think we've got a good routine," Harbaugh said. ""We're going to try to 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."
The Bengals will clinch the sixth and final AFC wild-card berth provided they defend their turf in front of what could shape up as a relatively small crowd given the stakes and promise of a home team.
Considering that the Ravens are much more successful at home and have injured players that could use time to heal up like wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who's coming off minor knee surgery, winning this game is pivotal even though they've already clinched the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
"Playing at home can help us get closer to the prize," All-Pro 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 M&T for any game would be a good, good thing."
Over the past two games, the Ravens have allowed a total of 671 yards and generated 574 yards. And they struggled with dropped passes against the Browns, especially tight end Ed Dickson and wide receiver Torrey Smith.
"I don't know if it is a concern, but obviously, you do want to play better," said wide receiver Lee Evans, who was targeted four times and didn't have a catch Sunday. "At the end of the day, you do have to find a way to win games. We were able to do that , and we can build on that. Next week, our job is just to win one more."
The Ravens built a 20-0 lead before the Browns scored 14 unanswered points behind an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown from Josh Cribbs and a touchdown pass to tight end Evan Moore that followed a Joe Flacco interception to Sheldon Brown.
"We won, but there's obviously a lot of things we can learn from and a lot of areas we can get better in," center Matt Birk said. So, we're pretty grateful."
Although the Ravens have won five of their past six games since their defeat at Seattle, including a 31-24 win at home over the Bengals, it doesn't seem like they're building momentum heading into the postseason.
"We're on course to be as good as we can be," Harbaugh said. "What we have is 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."
Ravens notebook: D. Reed out for season with torn ACL
Baltimore Ravens kick returner David Reed is out for the remainder of the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and was placed on injured reserve. Reed got hurt during a 30-yard kickoff return to start the second half during the Ravens' 20-14 win over the Cleveland Browns. "David Reed has a torn ACL, an isolated torn ACL," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "So, he'll be out for the year."
He ended his rookie season last year on injured reserve due to torn wrist ligaments. Now, it's another setback for the former fifth-round draft pick from Utah. No surgery date has been determined yet for Reed, but typically no repairs are done until the swelling subsides.
Benched earlier this season after fumbling twice against the Seattle Seahawks, Reed had just gotten to the point where he was being utilized again on kickoffs.
He had a 47-yard return against the San Diego Chargers and was possibly on the verge of breaking a long return against the Browns before crumpling to the ground without being touched. "I think it's disappointing for David and for all of us," Harbaugh said. "He was about to run that kick for a touchdown. "That's the thing that was probably most amazing. He had two guys out in front of him, and I didn't see anybody between him and the end zone.
"That was going to the house. Then, the leg buckles. A lot of things are unpredictable in football. That is certainly not one we would have predicted. We'll just have to move forward." Reed led the NFL in kickoff return average as a rookie and set a franchise record with a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Houston Texans. However, this season didn't go his way.
"It's frustrating, but God has his plan for me," Reed said. "I just got to let him work his magic."
Reed wasn't the only injury suffered against the Browns.
Offensive guard Marshal Yanda has a rib contusion and a thigh contusion. "We'll just have to see how he does on that," Harbaugh said. "They're good bruises. We'll just see where that goes."
If Yanda is sidelined Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, Andre Gurode would fill in for him again at right guard.
"He did fine," Harbaugh said of Gurode. "He did a good job. It's a tough duty. Andre has been put in that situation a few times. He continues to compete in there and battle and do a good job." Starting cornerback Cary Williams and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe are both recovering from concussions that forced them out of the game. If Williams is out, rookie Jimmy Smith would start in his place.
"Both are looking pretty decent," Harbaugh said. "With concussions, you never really know. We'll just have to see when and if they get cleared. We'll keep our fingers crossed on that." Defensive end Cory Redding struggled during warmup drills and was scratched due to a right ankle injury.
"Cory Redding got out there pregame, but was unable to go before the game with his ankle, but he's looking good," Harbaugh said. There's no change in the expected return of wide receiver Anquan Boldin after he was sidelined Sunday following knee surgery to fix a slightly torn meniscus.
Boldin is expected back in time for the playoffs. "Anquan Boldin continues to progress," Harbaugh said. "He's doing very, very well. The swelling's out of the knee, so things are looking good there. Nothing's changed as far as when he'll be back time-wise."
Kicker Billy Cundiff was deactivated with a left calf injury that has bothered him for the past few weeks. Shayne Graham made kicks from 48 and 43 yards against the Browns as his replacement. The Ravens want to evaluate Cundiff in practice this week prior to possibly getting him back on the field against Cincinnati.
"Billy Cundiff is doing really, really well," Harbaugh said. "I want to see him practice. So, we'll know more Wednesday or Thursday." Harbaugh said the team doesn't plan to have two kickers on the roster if Cundiff is able to return. Under that scenario, Graham would be released.
"We're not going to carry two kickers into the game if Billy's kicking," Harbaugh said. Harbaugh isn't enthusiastic about what's out there as far as free agents.
"There's really not a lot of guys out there," he said. "If anything, people have been signing guys off their practice squads for about the last six weeks very aggressively. So, unless a name comes before us, which we haven't seen yet, I would say that's probably not going to happen."
PUNT RETURN REDUX:
The Ravens allowed their third punt return for a touchdown this season Sunday as Josh Cribbs raced 84 yards up the middle into the end zone.
The Ravens lost lane discipline and left a huge hole for Cribbs to run through as punter Sam Koch and safety Haruki Nakamura missed tackles. "The guys on the left side felt that way,"
Harbaugh said. "The guys on the right side were too far to the right, and basically, they split up coverage, two things that really shouldn't happen. It wasn't one of the better punts we've had, but we can cover it.
"So many times Sam bails us out with really great punts right out of bounds. That was not one of them. He's not going to bat 1,000 as good as he is. And then the coverage has got to bail out that punt, and we didn't do it there. It split us right down the middle of the coverage. It shouldn't happen."
The Ravens built a 20-0 lead by the third quarter, but didn't score another point. Quarterback Joe Flacco was intercepted once, and tight end Ed Dickson and rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith dropped passes.
"The biggest issue in the second half of the game was obviously the drops," Harbaugh said. "That was the deal. If we catch the ball, the way we're capable of catching the ball, the way we caught it in the first half, those drives are going to be extended.
"We're not going to be punting the ball down to Cribbs. Our defense is going to be off the field. Those are guys who are open, who have made those plays, can make those plays, will make those plays, want to make those plays. So, it's pretty simple what happened in the second half in this game I think."
Instead of criticizing players who drop throws, Harbaugh said he tends to try to build their confidence.
"It depends on the guy, it depends on the situation," Harbaugh said. "With these guys, it's more encouraging. We do encourage them to get on the ‘Jugs' machine and catch more balls and run better routes.
"There are lots of things that go into it. Bottom line is if you throw a guy a ball, you want him to catch it, and that's what they want, too. So, it's important to our guys. That's really what execution is in the pass game."
Flacco tends to follow a similar approach. "Joe is very positive," Harbaugh said. "He doesn't get down on guys very much, but he wants them to catch the ball. That's for sure."
Harbaugh explained why the team chose to have Tandon Doss active instead of fellow rookie wide receiver LaQuan Williams. "I think Tandon has worked hard," he said. "He is a slot receiver, which Anquan is a slot receiver. That's probably the biggest factor. That's where he has majored throughout the course of the year. He can play inside or outside. LaQuan can play inside and outside, too, but Tandon has probably majored more inside behind Anquan. He has kind of been behind Anquan there for most of the year." … The Ravens allowed bruising Browns running back Peyton Hillis to gain 112 yards on 24 carries. His longest run was 15 yards. He gained only 45 yards in the first game against Baltimore when All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis wasn't in the lineup.
"I think they ran the exact same plays, the exact same way they've been running them," Harbaugh said. "He's probably a little healthier than he was in the first game. He bled some yards there, did a nice job with that. He's a good player, but I thought we played good defense overall. We gave up one drive, essentially, and that's not bad."
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