Ravens could clinch playoff berth this week

OWINGS MILLS – If a few scenarios break perfectly Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens can qualify for a return trip to the playoffs with one game remaining in the regular season. Of course, it's all predicated on the Ravens (8-6) defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7) at Heinz Field.

Then, they need the Jacksonville Jaguars to lose as well as gaining the assistance of defeats suffered by the Denver Broncos or the New York Jets.

They could also clinch a playoff berth if they win and the Miami Dolphins, Broncos and Jets all lose.

It's not out of the realm of possibility. The Broncos travel to play the Philadelphia Eagles. The Jets play the undefeated Indianapolis Colts.

The Dolphins have a home game against the Houston Texans, and the Jaguars are on the road against the New England Patriots.

Regardless of the scenarios, the Ravens can simply make the playoffs with no help if they win their final two games against Pittsburgh and the Oakland Raiders.

"I think our guys approach the fact that we control our own destiny as a challenge," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "It's well-deserved. We have fought through a lot of adversity. We've lost some tough games that we would have liked to have won, and yet we bounced back.

"They have not gotten bogged down in any disappointment with anything that's happened through the course of the season. We've got to find a way to win another game against a great opponent, an opponent that is a huge challenge. It's an opportunity more than anything, and a challenge."

The Ravens have won consecutive games for the first time since September when they began the season with three wins in a row. They have outscored their past two opponents, the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions, by a 79-10 margin.

Now, they're on the cusp of making it back to the postseason.

"We need to win," running back Ray Rice said. "It's clear-cut. We win and we control our destiny to the playoffs. It's clear-cut. We just need to go win one game at a time.

"It's a divisional game, a big rivalry game and there is a lot at stake for us. We control what we want to control, and now we need to go out there and take care of our business."

There's also a possibility, albeit a slim one, where the Ravens could still win the AFC North title.

It would entail the Cincinnati Bengals (9-5), who swept the season series with Baltimore, losing their final two games against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Jets to lose control of the division crown.

"My thoughts are that winning the division is out of our control except for the fact that we have to win all our games," Harbaugh said. "So, whether we make the playoffs or win the division, we have to win all our games. If that happens, we'd be proud of that."

SPLITTING OUT HEAP: The Ravens used tight end Todd Heap as a wide receiver at times against the Bears, a strategy that paid off with five receptions for 56 yards and two touchdowns.

"It just fit the game plan," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "They bring in an extra safety, so we were able to get him one-on-one with a safety. This is one of the few teams that brings in a third safety.

"When they bring in a third safety and we get two tight ends, it's a way for us to get Todd matched up on a safety instead of a corner. We saw that they'd done it against Green Bay and felt like we'd take advantage of it."

Both of Heap's touchdowns transpired with him lined up against overmatched cornerback Corey Graham.

And Heap's presence paid dividends with wide receivers Mark Clayton and Kelley Washington sidelined with injuries.

"I wouldn't say I was surprised by it, we had prepared for that," Graham said. "They did some really good things with their tight end, and he made some plays.

"When they got him involved on play-action, I made a mistake and didn't stay with him. I needed to stay with my man on that."

FLACCO ON A ROLL: Quarterback Joe Flacco delivered a career-high four touchdown passes against the Bears, also setting a career-high with a 135.6 passer rating.

It was the second-highest passer rating in franchise history.

Over the past two games, Flacco has thrown five touchdowns with no interceptions. He has completed 34 of 49 passes for 464 yards during that span.

For Flacco, it marks an encouraging turnaround after throwing two touchdowns and six interceptions during a five-game stretch after beginning the season with a dozen touchdowns and five interceptions in the first seven games.

"He's played well obviously and guys have played well around him," Harbaugh said. "It makes a big difference. Then again, he's probably played better the last two weeks. He's made good decisions as far as protecting the football.

"He's especially done that in the red zone, which is most important. I think we've got to keep playing well around him and coaching well around him, and he'll keep, hopefully, getting better throughout the course of the next two weeks."

PENALIZED: Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taking his helmet off following defensive tackle Haloti Ngata's fumble recovery.

Suggs said he was trying to adjust his helmet at the time.

"The moment got the best of me," Suggs said. "I took it off and I put it back on. My helmet was already crooked. I was going to fix it. As I tried to fix it, I took it off and tried to put it back on real quick.

"Then, they got me. That couldn't have been big. I'm glad it happened in a game where it didn't hurt us that much. Who knows? Maybe in a playoff that may kill us. I'm glad it happened now."

POLAMALU MAKES A DIFFERENCE: The Steelers have lost six of the nine games this season that star strong safety Troy Polamalu has missed. It's unclear if Polamalu will be able to return Sunday after being out past five games with a knee injury.

Harbaugh said he's looking for hints out of Pittsburgh about Polamalu's status.

"I'll be eagerly reading everything that comes out of there and everything that they say," Harbaugh said. "So, hopefully, they'll give us an indication if he's going to play. No, he changes everything. I think their guys play well together in the back end, but Troy Polamalu is a wild card because he's capable of lining up in that in-between area and playing it either way.

"He can line up in that in-between area and play down on the run and be in your backfield when the ball is snapped or line up in that in-between area and be 20 yards deep when the throw is made and actually catch the ball and make the big play. So, he's just a wild card and he makes deciphering defenses very difficult."

QUICK HITS: The Ravens are hoping that free safety Ed Reed can return this week from a strained groin and foot injury. "He's worked hard every week to try to get back," Harbaugh said. "It's been my understanding he's tried to get back every single week. He tried hard to get back this week, and he just couldn't pull it off. So, he's going to try hard to get back as well." .. Harbaugh dismissed a suggestion that Clayton might have to go on injured reserve with knee and hamstring injuries. "No talk about putting Mark on IR, he doesn't have that kind of an injury right now," Harbaugh said. "Unless something changes with that, which I definitely don't anticipate, he's going to be back playing for us. Hopefully, this week. He's pushing hard to make that happen. He's just got some tendinitis issues in there that are very painful, but that stuff is starting to even out for him."


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