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Ravens' road to playoffs clear: Better earn home field Sunday

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Haloti Ngata and the Ravens' tough D tends to spring leaks only on the road. (US Presswire)  
Haloti Ngata and the Ravens' tough D tends to spring leaks only on the road. (US Presswire)  

Now that the Cincinnati Bengals are urging fans to show up for Sunday's game, I suggest the Baltimore Ravens respond with a similar message -- only aim it at their players. Because if they don't show up on the road again, the Ravens' chances of reaching the Super Bowl are in serious jeopardy.

They might be anyway. Baltimore hasn't exactly looked overwhelming in its past four starts. All I know is that this team is better off in the playoffs -- much better off -- at home where it can't lose, and it gets there only with a victory Sunday in Cincinnati.

Look, road games can be tough for anyone, but they're especially tough for Baltimore. All the Ravens' defeats this season have been there, with the club 3-4, including three of its past five. But it's not just that it struggles on the road; it's whom it struggles against.

It lost to Tennessee. It lost to Jacksonville. It lost to Seattle. It lost to San Diego. Three of those teams have losing records, and all but Tennessee are out of the playoff picture.

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The Ravens, meanwhile, can clinch the AFC North if they beat Cincinnati, and while it's a critical game for the Bengals -- with a victory putting them in the playoffs -- it's at least as critical for Baltimore. The playoffs aren't the Ravens' goal; the Super Bowl is. We already know they're one of the AFC's heavyweights; what we don't know is how far they can go into January.

We will Sunday.

Basically, it comes down to this: The Ravens have a chance to make it to Indianapolis if they can clinch the first-round bye and be home for the divisional round of the playoffs. As I said, they're 8-0 at M&T Bank Stadium, outscoring opponents 219-119. They won 18 of their past 19 there, including the past 10, and are 27-5 over the past four seasons. Only New England (27-4) has a better home record during that time.

So when we talk about home-field advantages, it's places like Baltimore we have in mind.

Now look what happens on the road: The Ravens barely outscore opponents (135-131). But throw out a 37-7 shredding of St. Louis, and the margin becomes 124-98, in favor of the home team. The Ravens' three lowest point totals are on the road. Their worst defensive showing was a 34-14 hammering in San Diego on Dec. 18. After closing to 22-17 in Seattle in mid-November, their defense couldn't make a stop in the last six minutes -- with Seattle running off 12 plays for 72 yards to close out the victory.

And that's a concern.

It's the Ravens' vaunted defense that seems to wilt on the road. It has 25 takeaways this season, but only seven are on the road. It has 47 sacks, but only 14 on the road. Opposing quarterbacks complete 51 percent of their passes in Baltimore, with six touchdowns and 11 interceptions. But send the Ravens on the road, and suddenly the percentage jumps to 59, with quarterbacks throwing for five TDs and only four interceptions.

Three times Baltimore allowed more than 400 yards, with two of those games on the road. And the third? Ah, that's where this gets interesting. It was Cincinnati, and it was at M&T Bank Stadium, with the Bengals piling up 483 yards -- the most the Ravens surrendered in any game this season.

Yeah, I know, the Ravens won at Pittsburgh. But that's the only opponent with a winning record they've beaten away from home. The others are Cleveland and St. Louis, a combined 6-24.

In Baltimore, the Ravens outscore opponents by an average of almost 13 points per start. They beat San Francisco there. They beat Houston there. They beat Pittsburgh there. They beat Cincinnati there. I think you get the idea. The Ravens are simply a different -- and better -- club at home.

If they lose Sunday, they qualify as the AFC's No. 5 seed, and, sure, they can win in Denver or Oakland. Hey, all they've done in John Harbaugh's tenure as head coach is play road playoff games, and they're 4-3 there -- winning at least once in every season.

But they're no slam dunk, as they proved with that dreadful performance in San Diego. Maybe they win once in the playoffs, but are you going to tell me they can go 3-0 on the road? No way. Not this season.

So the playoffs start now, Baltimore. I know your team is in, but it better be in as the division champion, which means it better show up Sunday in Cincinnati.

It was after the loss in San Diego that Ravens' linebacker Terrell Suggs said that "championship teams get on a roll and keep playing. They peak. They don't take a step back." Now, more than ever, the Ravens must heed that advice. Otherwise, they're back where they don't want to be.

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