OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) Playing their best football at just the right time, the Baltimore Ravens need only to beat Cincinnati at home on Sunday to reach the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Baltimore has won five of six, the lone flaw in that stretch a 39-38 defeat against AFC North champion Pittsburgh on the road.
So, the Ravens (9-6) will enter the finale against the Bengals (6-9) riding a wave of momentum that started with a 23-0 rout in Green Bay on Nov. 19 and extended through last Saturday’s 23-16 win over Indianapolis.
”It’s very important and I’m very happy with it,” coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday. ”That’s the idea.”
The NFL moved the Bengals-Ravens game and several others from 1 p.m. to 4:25 p.m. to lessen the possibility of matchups becoming meaningless as the day wears on. Though Harbaugh understands the reasoning, that doesn’t mean he likes it.
”I don’t think the NFL did us any favors by moving it back, but they don’t care about us,” the coach said, referring to the notion that ticket-holders who had New Year’s Eve plans now must choose between football and dinner reservations.
”That’s kind of tough for the fans. I’m sure they have New Year Eve’s plans,” Harbaugh said. ”I hope our fans are OK with it. I hope they’re into it, I hope people get there. The people that have plans, I hope they give their tickets to somebody else so they get there. I want the place to be packed and loud.”
Despite their recent surge, the Ravens have been performing before thousands of empty seats at each home game.
In a letter to season-ticket holders, team president Dick Cass acknowledged that the decision by some players to take a knee during the national anthem before a Sept. 24 game in London was a factor.
”We have had significant numbers of no-shows in the past when our play on the field has not met the high standard we and you have set for the Ravens,” Cass wrote.
”But this year has been different. The numbers are higher, and it is noticeable. There are a number of reasons for the no-shows, but surely the one-time protest in London has been a factor.”
Those who show up this Sunday afternoon will be watching a game the Ravens must win to clinch a No. 5 seed in the playoffs and a first-round matchup in Kansas City.
”I think that we are really coming into our own,” safety Eric Weddle said. ”We’re playing the style and game that we envisioned at the beginning of the season. We are a team with momentum, and we just have to get one more.”
The Ravens are 16-7 at home in December since Harbaugh took over in 2008, winning the past five games by a combined score of 152-85. Baltimore intends to bolster those numbers against the struggling Bengals, who snapped a three-game skid by defeating Detroit at home Sunday.
”We know what’s ahead of us, and we know what’s at stake,” Ravens safety Tony Jefferson said. ”We’re excited about the opportunity. It is always good when your future is in your own hands. We just have to go out and get this one last win, and we are in the dance.”
Baltimore will be without special teams standout and backup cornerback Jaylen Hill, who tore his ACL and MCL against the Colts.
”A non-contact injury, and just unfortunate for him,” Harbaugh said. ”He’s a tough young man and was really working hard on special teams, developing as a defensive back.”
Harbaugh said it’s possible that cornerback Robertson Daniel will be activated from the practice squad.
Also, the Ravens hope to have back receiver Jeremy Maclin, who missed Saturday’s game with a knee injury.
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