BALTIMORE - Even if they don't win another game, the Baltimore Ravens could probably still get into the playoffs as AFC North champions.
And then what?
John Harbaugh has no intention of having the Ravens slither through the back door into the post-season and then counting on them to suddenly flourish in a win-or-go-home scenario. That's why he fired offensive co-ordinator Cam Cameron on Monday after Baltimore (9-4) failed for the second week in a row to win and clinch a playoff berth.
Before falling into their first losing streak since October 2009, the Ravens had the second-best record in the AFC. Now they're striving to build some momentum and re-establish themselves among the NFL elite, objectives that can be met Sunday with a victory over the streaking Denver Broncos (10-3).
"It's always important to right the ship," Harbaugh said. "You want to bounce back and you want to get back on the winning side of things. That's something that we've tried to do, we need to do. The losses are disappointing. I know it's tough on the fans, it's tough on the players, it's tough on the coaches."
Last Sunday's 31-28 overtime loss in Washington was especially taxing for Cameron, who lost his job even though the Ravens hold a two-game lead in the division with three to play. Jim Caldwell, who once coached Denver quarterback Peyton Manning at Indianapolis, was selected to call the offensive plays in a game Baltimore believes it needs to win.
"Our backs are against the wall, and we know what we have to do," tight end Ed Dickson said. "There's no panic, but we've got to get things done. The teams that go through adversity and get through problems are the great teams. The teams that win the Super Bowl are playing their best ball coming into the playoffs. We've got a few games left here in the regular season to fix those mistakes."
Running back Ray Rice said, "We all know what playoff football is about. It's about the team that catches fire right now. You put yourself in a position right now and you catch fire right now. The Giants did it last year. They made a great run. Early on everyone was questioning them, and that team caught fire going into the playoffs. I think it's about time we catch our fire right now and try to make this playoff run."
Denver has already clinched its second straight AFC West crown and has won eight in a row. But the Broncos also feel a sense of urgency, because a victory would provide them with a tiebreaker advantage over Baltimore and keep them within striking distance of Houston (11-2) and New England (10-3) for best record in the conference.
Plus, a win Sunday would indicate that Denver can win anywhere against any team. The Broncos' winning streak has been forged against seven losing teams and Cincinnati (7-6), and the Ravens have won 23 of their last 25 at home.
"You're talking about a team that's been in the playoffs four straight years, was a field goal away from going into overtime in the championship game," Denver coach John Fox said. "I think coach Harbaugh has done a tremendous job. They know how to win, and part of that is being tough at home. They've only lost one game there this year. This will be a playoff-type game."
Denver is 0-5 in Baltimore, although that was without Manning, who is 8-2 lifetime against the Ravens.
"Those were different teams, different players," Manning said. "I can't speak to the past. I really can't speak to what's happened here with the history of Denver in Baltimore. All I know is we're going on the road, playing an excellent team. ... Defensively, they create a lot of turnovers and they're extremely tough to score touchdowns (on) once you get into the red zone. They hold a lot of teams to field goals, if not turnovers. That's our challenge this week, trying to win against that."
Manning will be going up against a depleted defence that is coming off two straight humbling performances. Two weeks ago, the Ravens allowed 37-year-old Charlie Batch to move the Pittsburgh Steelers into position for a game-winning field goal in a 23-20 victory that ended Baltimore's 15-game home winning streak.
Last week, a couple of rookie quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins, moved the Redskins 85 yards in the closing minutes of regulation for the game-tying touchdown and 2-point conversion.
If the Ravens couldn't stop a third-string quarterback and a couple of rookies in the fourth quarter, how can they hope to contain Manning, who has engineered 48 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime?
"What's hurting us right now is we've got to learn to finish and close out a game," Baltimore defensive co-ordinator Dean Pees said. "It had nothing to do with Batch or with Kirk Cousins. Any college quarterback could have thrown Kirk Cousins' touchdown pass. It isn't so much those guys. It's us."
In his NFL debut as an offensive co-ordinator, Caldwell will hope to formulate an attack that can outscore Manning, although his job is really about outdoing the Denver defence.
"What we're going to try to do is put points on the board, which we know we need to do," Caldwell said. "We really just kind of have to focus on us."
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