When the Baltimore Ravens travel to play the Cincinnati Bengals on New Year's Day, both teams will be fighting for playoff possibilities. While the Ravens are already in the post season win or lose, the Bengals will be fighting for their playoff lives. If Cincinnati wins, they are in and if they lose, they pretty much can kiss the post season goodbye, unless every other team in the hunt for the final Wild Card slot also loses.
At the same time, the Ravens and especially their fans, know that a win gives them a first round bye and at least one home playoff game. That bye also gives a bunch of injured players an extra week of rest to heal up and be ready for whomever will be coming to M&T Bank Stadium the following week.
However, a loss and the Ravens are on the road for the fourth consecutive year in the post season. While Baltimore is the only team in the NFL that has made the playoffs for the past four years in a row, the way this team has performed as visitors would most likely result in a premature end to the season in the minds of the Ravens and their fans.
Therefore, the Ravens actually need this game more than the Bengals do for this and a few other meaningful reasons. Look at it this way. If the Bengals win this game, they go on the road to play what appears to be the Houston Texans and while the Texans haven't been playing well as of late, they should be able to beat the Bengals and if not, then the New England Patriots would be awaiting Cincinnati, which would surely signal the end of their season.
Even if the Bengals lose to the Ravens Sunday, fans will be disappointed but the season will have still been a huge success, much less a pleasant surprise, and give hope throughout the off season of a chance to improve and fight once again for a playoff spot next year.
Not so for the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens were always expected to compete as a Super Bowl contender from the moment the season started and after such a convincing start in putting a beatdown on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener, the expectations have never changed. A slip here and there on the road has disappointed both the team and fan base, but a season sweep of Pittsburgh combined with beating every plus-.500 team on their schedule as well as going 8-0 at home proved the team has the talent to go all the way.
The road losses have been frustrating and another as such a critical point of the season would do nothing to give hope that the Ravens could then turn around a week later, head out to the west to play either the Denver Broncos or Oakland Raiders and come away with a victory. Even if they do, their next game would be at either the Steelers or Patriots. Despite squeaking out a victory in Pittsburgh earlier this season, the thought of ending our post season in Pittsburgh with a loss would crush the heart and soul of every Ravens fans.
On the other hand, a Ravens win on the road in Cincinnati would re-energize the fan base and based on the team's domination of opponents at home, give rise to every bit of confidence that the Ravens could then defeat any other team that survived the first round to come here and lose to Baltimore. The chance of winning at least one home playoff game and then one either at home or at New England is a lot more palatable than the need to go on the road three straight weeks and win, when the Ravens have just not been able to prove they can do that consistently, much less to expect that when the stakes are so high.
That's just a part of the issue, as a loss could have such a domino effect on the Ravens. Would that be the end of the long, illustrious career of Ray Lewis? Could Ed Reed consider retirement as well? What would the outcry be on the future of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, much less head coach John Harbaugh? Even more so, the criticism directed towards QB Joe Flacco would reach a crescendo that he is not the QB to lead this team to the Promised Land. While some of these questions would be legitimate while others might not be, they would all be fair to ask.
Yeah, both the Bengals and Ravens want to win and make the playoffs and while that might be good enough for one of the teams, it certainly will not be enough for the other. The Bengals will live to fight another day, but the real fighting would come a lot sooner for the Ravens and their fans if the season ends with another regular season loss and then another playoff loss on the road.