Ravens choose only path fully in their hands to close regular season

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In the moments following the Ravens’ win over the New York Giants last week, John Harbaugh was asked how he’d handle Sunday’s regular-season finale and the answer was predictable with a chance at the No. 3 seed still a possibility.

The head coach said his team would play to win, but it was the caveat he provided that left much doubt over the course of the week.

“We’re going to try and win the game. That’s the No. 1 thing we’re going to do,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what we do, and we’re going to try to win the game. We’re also going to try and make sure we are as healthy as we can be going into the playoffs. So, I think we’ll merge those two considerations.”

In the aftermath of a 23-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in which six starters were ruled inactive and Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, and a plethora of other starters took seats on the bench before the end of the first quarter, it was evident which consideration won out on Sunday. Optimum health was the only path fully in the Ravens’ hands as they now turn their sights toward the Indianapolis Colts in the opening round of the playoffs next weekend.

No matter what happened in Cincinnati, the Ravens knew they would need help by way of a Miami win over New England in order to move up to the third spot in the AFC. That possibility became even more complicated with Houston falling in Indianapolis to create more incentive for the Patriots to take care of business in Foxborough to clinch a first-round bye. And New England took care of its business in a 28-0 blowout victory.

When it came down to it, there were too many outside factors working against the Ravens to play their starters extensively — without any guarantee of a win, anyway — and risk an injury to Flacco or Rice or pass up the opportunity to rest banged-up players such as Marshal Yanda, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata. Though it didn’t alter their plans, the sight of fullback Vonta Leach limping to the locker room after aggravating an ankle injury on the first offensive series was all the evidence you needed to support Harbaugh’s thinking.

Fortunately, the injuries suffered to Leach and right tackle Kelechi Osemele — who left with a knee injury — aren’t expected to put the pair in danger of missing next week’s game, according to Harbaugh in his post-game press conference. The argument could be made that the Ravens should have just rested their starters from the outset, but you can understand the desire for the starting offense to play a couple series on the road for the first time under new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. If the Ravens are to advance to the Super Bowl, they will likely need to win two road games and it was important to iron out any kinks in the line of communication from Caldwell to wide receivers coach Jim Hostler to Flacco in relaying play calls in an opponent’s stadium.

Yes, the No. 3 seed would have increased the Ravens’ chances of potentially hosting the AFC Championship game if the chips fell in their favor. Many debated the merits of playing Indianapolis or Cincinnati in the first round and trying to avoid the Broncos in the divisional round, but there were too many moving parts over which to obsess.

The reality is there are no easy games or paths to the Super Bowl in January, and the Ravens looked at the one possibility that would put them in the best position to make a deep run in January. It was the only one nobody else could impact on Sunday.

It included a healthy Flacco, who played two series and avoided a potentially crippling hit or even the most innocent chance of Matt Birk or Jah Reid stepping on his foot and turning his ankle.

Rice only had three touches and will be as fresh as possible, Anquan Boldin’s bruised shoulder should be little more than an afterthought, and Yanda will have rested a sprained ankle in two of the last three weeks.

A defense that’s struggled to even be average all season will have healthier versions of Ngata, Suggs, and Bernard Pollard as well as a returning Ray Lewis to provide an emotional lift. If the Ravens are to give themselves much of a chance beyond the wild-card round, they would benefit greatly from Ngata and Suggs providing more than they have at any point this season and Sunday’s rest improves the likelihood of that happening.

None of these factors will ensure postseason success for a Ravens team with obvious flaws, but the minute chance of the No. 3 seed wouldn’t have done it either. Every team not named the Denver Broncos in the AFC playoff field is facing some obvious flaw at the end of the regular season, but the Ravens’ best chance to make noise was a healthier football team — not the No. 3 seed.

Critics will say the Ravens’ choice to rest their starters squashed the momentum gained in their convincing Week 16 victory, but you’ll find plenty of examples on each side of the equation of playoff teams resting their starters in the regular-season finale. In reality, momentum goes as far as your next opponent and the Ravens will have their hands full with an inspired Indianapolis team led by coach Chuck Pagano.

The Ravens could have played most of their starters to try to win on Sunday and then hoped for help to gain the No. 3 seed, but they chose the path of least resistance by pulling their key players out of harm’s way in hopes that they’ll be better for it in January.

In watching them play 16 regular-season games this season, we’ve wondered who the 10-6 Ravens really are and we’re about to find out. At their best, the Ravens can play with anyone and at their worst, they can be handled easily by any opponent in the playoff field.

Sunday’s decision was a sign that the Ravens wanted to buy some stock in themselves instead of putting their health at further risk and hanging their hats on the mediocre Miami Dolphins to offer a hand.

In weighing all the options, the guaranteed chance of having a healthier team in January was just too much for Harbaugh and the Ravens to pass up.

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