OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked this week about the Ravens’ opportunity to finish atop the AFC to earn the first-round bye, head coach John Harbaugh maintained that “there’s no No. 1 seed” right now.
Though hardly as deliberate as Super Bowl XXXV coach Brian Billick banning players from using the word “playoffs” down the stretch of the 2000 regular season, Harbaugh certainly isn’t looking for Baltimore to get ahead of itself. With one of the NFL’s most difficult remaining schedules, fortunes could still turn for the 10-3 Ravens in their quest to secure the No. 1 seed for the first time since 2019 and just the second time in team history.
“Our guys understand that we have to go earn everything we get, and if we earn it, then we’ll get it. If we don’t earn it, we won’t,” said Harbaugh, who’s on the verge of leading the Ravens to their fifth postseason berth of the last six years. “We’re going to try to win as many games as we can, climb as high as we can. But really just play one play at a time as well as we can, compete as hard as we can every single play, single series, every single quarter, every single game, and that’s our focus. That’s all we’re thinking about.”
The timing of a trip to Jacksonville for a second straight season may have something to do with that mindset. After all, the Ravens had won four straight games and were right in the thick of the race for the No. 1 seed and leading the AFC North with a 7-3 record entering Week 12 last year. Meanwhile, the Jaguars were 3-7 and seemingly on their way to missing the postseason for the fifth straight season.
But instead of serving as a stepping stone to greater heights, the game marked the beginning of the end for the 2022 team as the Ravens blew a two-score lead in the fourth quarter and lost 28-27 on a Trevor Lawrence touchdown pass and subsequent 2-point conversion with 14 seconds to go. Lamar Jackson would suffer a season-ending knee injury the following week — squashing any legitimate Super Bowl aspirations in the process — while the Jaguars won their final five games to win the AFC South and even advance to the divisional round of the playoffs.
A year later, the Ravens are looking like the best team in the AFC and Jackson is healthy and playing at his highest level since his 2019 MVP season, but their vaunted defense will need to rebound from its worst performance of the season against the Los Angeles Rams last week, which included allowing a go-ahead touchdown and a game-tying field goal in the final five minutes of regulation. But the Jaguars have also improved overall despite back-to-back losses to dim their own hopes for the top seed in the conference.
After what happened last year, there’s no excuse for the Ravens to be peeking ahead.
“The Jacksonville game last year was a straight up, ‘Hey, they have four downs. They have plenty of time to go down and score. We have to stop them,’” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said. “In that game, we got them in a third-and-long. We had two downs to try and get them to fourth down, and we didn’t make those plays to make it.”
There’s plenty on the line for both teams as the Ravens — winners of seven of their last eight games — don’t want to squander the good fortune of Miami, Kansas City, and Jacksonville stubbing their toes these last couple weeks, especially with the prime-time trip to San Francisco looming on Christmas. Making their first appearance on Sunday Night Football in 15 years, the 8-5 Jaguars need to maintain control of the AFC South and want to show the football world that they’re a legitimate contender, a perception that’s taken a substantial hit with Doug Pederson’s team falling to Cincinnati and Cleveland the last two weeks.
Considering the history of the franchise’s two Super Bowl wins and what happened four years ago after a remarkable 14-2 regular season, the Ravens understand the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage aren’t the be-all and end-all of what they truly desire. But the opportunity to shorten the path to Las Vegas for Super Bowl LVIII and to stay home in January is too enticing to squander at this stage of the season.
“We want it bad,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said. “If we don’t get it, we make the playoffs. We’re still in there. We still can dance, and I think that’s the biggest thing. As long as we have our spot in there, then everything else will take care of itself.”
Taking care of business in Jacksonville is the only step that matters right now.