Dispatched from the playoffs in the AFC championship game three seasons ago and in the divisional round for the past two years, the Ravens would quickly pack their belongings in visitors' locker rooms and return home to begin an offseason of soul-searching. They have no intentions of repeating that scenario of a road playoff loss for a fourth year in a row. And that brings the Ravens (11-4) to today's regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals (9-6) at Paul Brown Stadium, a pivotal clash that figures to play a key role in their immediate postseason future.
A victory today over a dangerous young Bengals team headlined by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and Pro Bowl rookie wide receiver A.J. Green would guarantee the Ravens their first AFC North division crown in five years as well as a first-round bye, the second seed in the AFC playoffs and at least one home playoff game. And a win for the Bengals assures them of the sixth and final playoff berth in the AFC.
"It's going to be fired-up, it's a big game for both of us," veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We need this win as bad as they do, so motivation and intensity isn't going to be the problem this game."
Headed to the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year and the lone NFL team to win a playoff game each of the previous three seasons, the Ravens are undefeated at M&T Bank Stadium this season with a perfect 8-0 record.
However, they're 3-4 on the road and have fallen to the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks and the San Diego Chargers.
As capable as the experienced Ravens are of beating a fledgling division rival, they've also lost their past two games here and five of their past six trips to Cincinnati.
If they lose this game and the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4) beat the Cleveland Browns today, the Ravens would fall short of the division title despite having swept the annual series with the defending AFC North champions. If both teams lose, the Ravens would still win the division by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker edge.
"It's about us, man, it's not about them," Ravens defensive end Cory Redding said. "We need to get this win so we can what we're looking for: a bye week and home-field advantage."
The Ravens have an opportunity to go undefeated in the AFC North for the first time in franchise history.
A year removed from losing, 31-24, to the Steelers at Heinz Field due to a disastrous third quarter after building a two-touchdown lead by halftime, the Ravens are hoping to avoid traveling in the postseason as much as possible as a wild-card squad.
With wide receiver Anquan Boldin still recovering from knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda doubtful with bruised ribs and middle linebacker Ray Lewis still affected by a right turf toe injury after returning from an ailment that sidelined him for four games, the Ravens could use some time to recuperate.
"It's huge, it makes a world of difference," said Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice. "Not having that bye, you usually come back into that next game scratching and clawing. As you could see, Pittsburgh was the fresher team last year when we had to play them in the divisional game. Second half, they came out with their motor running and we came out high, and then we hit a lot. Needless to say, this week is a playoff game. It's big for them, but even bigger for us."
The Bengals weren't expected to be in this position of relevance.
They had an ugly feud with former starting quarterback Carson Palmer, who refused to play for them anymore and was eventually unloaded to the Oakland Raiders. They also parted ways with diva wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.
Instead of a rebuilding year, it's been a resurgent campaign that has the usually downtrodden Bengals feeling good about themselves.
Especially if they can make the playoffs for the third time in the past two decades.
"I think it would be huge," Bengals running back Cedric Benson said. "You can only imagine what it would do to some egos around here, but I think as far as the young guys, the team as a whole, the momentum and the bonding that it will actually do for the guys, for the team, is hard to even put in words. This is a team that has had a lot of adversity, wasn't expected to do much this year. It would just be kind of a good capper, a great building block to the future."
The Ravens have only swept former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' team once, and that was back in 2008.
And they have been swept by the Bengals three times, including two years ago.
However, the Bengals have won only one of seven games against teams with winning records this season.
To win this game, the Ravens will need to devise a plan to defend Green. He's one of the more explosive receivers to enter the league in years.
"He's a nightmare," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "He's leading the NFL in rebounds, you know? They just throw the ball up to him and it doesn't matter if there are two or three guys."
The Ravens will also need quarterback Joe Flacco to play at least as well as he did in the first meeting this year when he passed for two touchdowns and 270 yards with one interception.
Last year, Flacco struggled against Cincinnati's Cover 2 schemes. In two games, he had one touchdown and five interceptions against the Bengals for 279 passing yards and a 36.5 quarterback rating.
"It's an interesting game," Flacco said. "They're a good team, and they've played well all year. It means a lot to both of us. So, it's going to be a hard-fought football game, and it's going to be a lot of fun."
The Ravens aren't eliminated from earning the top seed in the AFC, which would guarantee home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
In order to earn that nod of distinction, they would need to win this game and hope that the currently top-seeded New England Patriots get upset today by the Buffalo Bills.
A lot hinges on how the Ravens perform today.
"This is the type of opportunity that you work for in this league," coach John Harbaugh said. "Everything we put into our offseason work, everything we do is geared toward this time of year. In my mind, this is the playoffs
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