Ravens have plenty of incentive to beat the Browns
Baltimore clinched a playoff berth last Sunday afternoon shortly before taking the field on the road against the San Diego Chargers. The Ravens then lost control of the top seed in the AFC with a clunker of a performance in a 34-14 defeat.
The setback dropped Baltimore to the fifth-seed position and put Pittsburgh atop the AFC North. Just 24 hours later, however, the Steelers lost to San Francisco to throw the Ravens back in command of the race for the division crown.
And now, the Baltimore will finish a whirlwind seven-day stretch at home against the Browns (4-10). If Baltimore wins its final two games, it will capture the AFC North, get a first-round bye and play at home in second round.
That's a pretty sweet scenario, given the desperate situation the Ravens were in after Sunday night's defeat.
''The fact that if we win both games now, we will win the division, that means a lot,'' coach John Harbaugh said. ''Of course, we have to control what we have to control. And the beauty of that is, we can control a lot.''
Running back Ray Rice put it more succinctly: ''We don't got to take our show on the road if we take care of business.''
The last thing the Ravens need is to hit the road for the playoffs. Baltimore reached the postseason as a wild-card team in each of the previous three seasons, and although the Ravens went 4-3 overall, on each occasion their quest to reach the Super Bowl died on foreign turf.
That path might be even more difficult to follow this year, because the Ravens are 7-0 at home and 3-4 on the road. So beating Cleveland on Saturday and winning at Cincinnati next Sunday is imperative for Baltimore's upcoming playoff run.
The first order of business is knocking off the Browns, which would enable the Ravens to go unbeaten at home for the first time in franchise history.
''It's going to be a great accomplishment if we get it done,'' Rice said. ''The fans get to say, `Look, the Ravens gave us a sight to see at home this year.' But I'm sure they would even appreciate it more if the playoffs were here as well.''
It's all there for the Ravens. But what are the Browns playing for?
''We have a two-game season here,'' coach Pat Shurmur said. ''We're looking to do what we can to try and string a couple victories here at the end of the season.''
Beating the Ravens wouldn't take the sting out of another last-place finish, but it sure couldn't hurt.
''We're not throwing in the towel just because we're not in it,'' rookie wide receiver Greg Little said. ''We're trying to take somebody down with us. That takes a very big guy to stand up and say we're not going to back down because we're not in the fight.''
Cleveland has two games left, against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, which means the Browns will have the final say in who wins the AFC North.
''Yeah, at this point, the playoffs are out of the picture,'' linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. ''But if we can knock one of those guys off, we definitely want to play the spoiler.''
The Browns have additional motivation: They've lost seven straight to Baltimore, including a 24-10 defeat earlier this month, a game in which Rice ran for a career-high 204 yards on a soggy field.
''We got embarrassed, and every guy on this team on the defensive side is aware of it,'' Jackson said. ''They came out and ran the ball down our throat, so we've got another good challenge ahead of us. That first meeting was not the identity we want to put out versus the Ravens. We have to face them twice a year. They're aware of it that, and they came in and basically just bullied us.''
Even if the Browns stop Rice, there is some question as to whether they can put a dent in a Baltimore defense that yielded only 13 first downs, 233 yards and just one meaningless touchdown in that first game. And that was without middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who returned last week from a right toe injury.
The Browns will likely start Seneca Wallace at quarterback ahead of Colt McCoy, who is still feeling the effects of a concussion. But the key to Cleveland's offense is running back Peyton Hillis, who rambled for 144 yards last season in Baltimore.
''We talk about how you have to stop the run first and foremost, and now you've got a veteran,'' Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said.
Baltimore is favored by nearly two touchdowns, but after what happened Sunday in San Diego, nothing is being taken for granted.
''We've got Cleveland coming in. I describe them as the brawler,'' linebacker Terrell Suggs said. ''They're going to come and they're going to fight. We expect nothing else.''
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.