Ravens come full circle in another Week 17 finale against Cincinnati

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The stakes are similar, but the Ravens were a different team preparing for a Week 17 meeting with Cincinnati three years ago.

Joe Flacco was laboring through his 10th season as starting quarterback while Baltimore was trying to avoid missing the postseason for a third straight year. Despite a growing perception of being a stale outfit, the Ravens had won five of their previous six games to move into the top wild-card spot in the AFC and needed only a home win over the Bengals or a loss by either Buffalo or Tennessee to clinch a playoff berth. ESPN calculated their playoff odds entering Week 17 at 97 percent as 6-9 Cincinnati was playing out the string and had lost three of its previous four.

Of course, we all know what happened on fourth-and-12 with under a minute left as Andy Dalton found Tyler Boyd for a 49-yard touchdown pass and a shocking 31-27 upset win over Baltimore. It proved to be a turning point for the Ravens as the organization would draft future MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson less than four months later.

But what would have happened if the NFL’s sixth-ranked scoring defense had made the stop and the Ravens advanced to the playoffs in that 2017 finale? What if Flacco, who had played better down the stretch after being hampered by a back injury suffered over the summer, had then led Baltimore to a win or two in January? Would the Ravens have been as eager to draft a quarterback that spring? 

There’s no telling how that moment might have altered the path of the organization. The Ravens still would have sought Flacco’s successor sooner than later, but that could have been delayed another year if they’d reached the 2017 postseason and tasted some success in January. Perhaps it instead would have been a quarterback from the 2019 draft class such as Dwayne Haskins (selected 15th overall) or Drew Lock (42nd overall) with Jackson going elsewhere in 2018.

Maybe “Fourth-and-12” wasn’t so bad after all as the Ravens have gone a combined 30-10 in the regular season and playoffs since Jackson became the starting quarterback in mid-November of 2018.

Sunday’s trip to Cincinnati has the Ravens in a similar Week 17 position with a 90 percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. A win over the Bengals, a home loss by Cleveland to Pittsburgh, or an Indianapolis home defeat to Jacksonville will give Baltimore a third straight trip to the postseason.

However, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced Tuesday that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger won’t play in the regular-season finale. That decision coupled with the likelihood of at least a few other veterans resting should improve the chances of the Browns winning to punch their ticket to the postseason. And you wouldn’t anticipate the Colts having many problems at home against a 1-14 team either.

The circumstances of those games reinforce the need for the Ravens to take care of their business against a 4-10-1 Bengals team that has won two in a row and surprisingly knocked off the Steelers in Week 15. The memory of what happened three years ago leaves no excuse for the Ravens to take anything for granted against an opponent still competing hard despite having nothing for which to play.

A loss wouldn’t figure to have the same long-term fallout as the 2017 finale, but it would be no less devastating in a season of such great expectations.

Injury report

Edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue (thigh), center Patrick Mekari (back), and wide receiver Willie Snead (ankle) all left Sunday’s win over the New York Giants, leaving their availability in question for Week 17.

“I would just say that there’s nothing that’s a season-ender or anything like that,” head coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “It’s all going to just kind of come down to ‘day-to-day’ and possibly game time for some of those guys. Everybody is in kind of a different spot.”

Harbaugh provided no further clarity on cornerbacks Marcus Peters (calf) and Jimmy Smith (ribs/shoulder), who have each missed the last two games after getting hurt in the Week 14 win at Cleveland.

“The same goes for the guys coming back off the injuries. They’re all right there,” Harbaugh said. “It really, truly is just going to be a wait and see kind of a thing with everybody. I probably wouldn’t tell you anyway, but that’s where we’re at with all those guys.”

Should Peters and Smith miss another game, the Bengals are arguably better equipped than the Giants to challenge an undermanned secondary with the talented wide receiver trio of Boyd, seven-time Pro Bowl selection A.J. Green, and rookie second-round pick Tee Higgins. Boyd’s status is in question after he sat out Week 16 with a concussion, but Higgins continues to impress and needs just 92 receiving yards for 1,000 in his first NFL campaign. 

In a more encouraging development for the Ravens, six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell returned to action in Week 16, playing 20 defensive snaps and finishing with a tackle in the 27-13 win. The 34-year-old had missed four of the previous six games with a left calf injury suffered on Nov. 8.

“It’s good to see him getting healthy again, and I think he’ll be even better as we go forward,” Harbaugh said. “He’s one of the best ever. It’s great to have him back, and it makes a difference.”

Rookie draft pick claimed off waivers

Reserve safety Geno Stone won’t be returning to the Ravens after being waived on Monday.

The 2020 seventh-round pick from Iowa was claimed by the Houston Texans, which ended talk of him re-signing with Baltimore’s practice squad. Stone appeared in just two games this season and spent much of December on the reserve-COVID-19 list after testing positive for the coronavirus.  

The 21-year-old was activated from the COVID-19 list last week, but he was waived after his 53-man roster exemption expired.

A tie?

With the Bengals having been involved in the only draw of the 2020 season, some have asked what a tie would mean for Baltimore’s postseason fate.

A tie with Cincinnati along with a Miami loss, a Tennessee loss, a Cleveland tie, or an Indianapolis tie would put the Ravens in the postseason.

So, they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.