There's no secret regarding what's at stake when the Ravens meet the Bengals in the regular-season finale. The mystery is which Ravens team will show up at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.
Will it be the same Baltimore team that swept the Steelers so convincingly and also dispatched the likes of the Texans, the Jets and the 49ers? Or will it be the squad that has lost four games on the road, including a pair of uninspiring efforts against the Jaguars and Seahawks?
"We're on a course to be as good as we can be," coach John Harbaugh said in response to a question asking for his comfort level with the way his team was playing on the cusp of the playoffs. "We're working hard to do that. We don't have to play any games that are behind us, and we don't have to play any games that are off in our future. We have to play this one. Obviously, it's got major ramifications for what is in front of us, so that's our focus."
The scenario is simple. Win, and the Ravens will have locked up no worse than the No. 2 seed in the AFC, ensured themselves a first-round bye, and guaranteed themselves a playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since 2006.
Lose, however, and Baltimore could drop to the No. 5 seed (depending on how the Steelers do at Cleveland). In that scenario, the Ravens would play the following weekend, traveling to meet either Denver or Oakland.
"Big game. It's no secret," inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. "A division foe, we know each other; they know us, we know them. I think we know what's at stake. And at the same time, the Bengals have a lot of pride over there, too. (Coach) Marvin Lewis is going to definitely have them ready to play."
The Bengals would clinch a playoff berth with a win.
The most pressing concern for the Ravens is a spate of injuries that threatens to put the team at a strategic disadvantage.
Starting right guard Marshal Yanda sustained rib and thigh bruises that have left him highly questionable to play against Cincinnati. Andre Gurode, a five-time Pro Bowl center, is expected to start if Yanda, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl on Tuesday, is unavailable.
"He played fine," Harbaugh said of Gurode. "He did a good job. It's a tough duty. I think Andre's been put in that situation a few times, and he continues to compete in there and battle, and he'll do a good job."
Starting cornerback Cary Williams and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe are both nursing concussions, and starting defensive end Cory Redding likely will be questionable again with a sore right ankle.
The swelling in Anquan Boldin's surgically repaired knee has subsided, but the wide receiver has already been ruled out until at least the playoffs. But despite minimal production from Lee Evans and rookies Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss in the Ravens' 20-14 win against the Browns on Saturday, Harbaugh said the organization isn't interested in signing any veteran free agents to boost the passing attack. That would appear to end speculation that the team might inquire about Derrick Mason, who has been working as part-time analyst for the NFL Network since the Texans released him last month.
"There's really not a lot of guys out there," Harbaugh said. "If anything, people have been signing guys off their practice squads for about the last six weeks very aggressively. Unless a name comes before us which we have not seen yet, I'd say that's probably not going to happen."
Another potential roadblock for Baltimore is its habit of underwhelming play away from M&T Bank Stadium. The losses to the Jaguars, Seahawks and Chargers have been problematic, but Harbaugh said he wasn't going to change anything about his approach to road games.
"I think we've got a good routine," he said. "It's proven. We're going to try to play better (than) in the games we didn't win on the road. That's the main thing. Obviously, the turnovers were a big factor in some of those games, so those are the things that will be our focus."
The Ravens' focus should be sharpened by the knowledge that a victory in Cincinnati would give the franchise its first AFC North title since 2006.
"We've got to win this game, and we have a possibility of winning the division," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We have had a lot of games where we have to go win in order to really put us where we want to, and it's just another one of those. It's going to be against a good team, a division opponent, a team that's fighting for the playoffs themselves. We're going to have go in there and play a really good game to get a win."
SERIES HISTORY: 33rd regular-season meeting. Ravens lead series, 17-15. Baltimore is 6-9 in Cincinnati. The Ravens won the last meeting, 31-24, on Nov. 20. The offense was multifaceted, getting a 104-yard, two-touchdown performance from running back Ray Rice, a 270-yard, two-touchdown showing from quarterback Joe Flacco and a 165-yard, one-touchdown effort from rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith. The defense limited Bengals running back Cedric Benson to 41 yards, but he scored twice, and rookie quarterback Andy Dalton threw for a career-high 373 yards and one touchdown. Rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee sacked Dalton at the Ravens' 17-yard line on fourth-and-goal to preserve the victory.
--Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has been regarded as one of the top candidates for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. However, Suggs, who has collected a career-best 13 sacks, forced six fumbles and made two interceptions, said that achievement is the last thing he is worrying about.
"I just ask myself how many Defensive Players of the Year -- with the exception of (Green Bay Packers cornerback) Charles Woodson -- have Super Bowl rings," he said. "It definitely would be an honor, but I am in it for the overall No. 1 goal. At the end of the year, we'll see where we all land. To add that along with some hardware, I think that'd be great. But if you ask me between the two, I would rather take the hardware (Lombardi Trophy)."
--Coach John Harbaugh confirmed what the Ravens suspected when David Reed dropped to the turf at M&T Bank Stadium without being hit by a Cleveland player Saturday.
Reed tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during his 30-yard kick return to open the third quarter. It's the second time in as many years that Reed will be unable to complete a season, as he was shelved for the team's final two regular-season contests and two postseason games last year by torn ligaments in his left wrist.
Harbaugh said Reed is won't return for this year, playoffs included. Reed will begin his rehab shortly after he gets surgery, which has not been scheduled.
--Cleveland's Peyton Hillis became the third opposing running back this season to gain at least 100 yards on the ground against the Ravens on Saturday.
However, Harbaugh didn't sound too worried when asked about Hillis' success against Baltimore's defense.
"I think they ran the exact same plays the exact same way they've been running them," Harbaugh said. "He's probably healthier than he was the first game. ... He's a good player, but I thought we played good defense. Overall, we gave up one drive essentially, and that's not bad."
--Billy Cundiff is eager to return for Sunday's regular-season finale.
Cundiff, who was replaced by Shayne Graham in Saturday's win against the Browns, said the time off was beneficial for the health of his balky left calf.
"This is probably the first stretch of two or three days where I've had no pain walking, no tightness, all of those kinds of things," Cundiff said. "It's been pretty tough to deal with, and I think that's why we need the rest. And now we're going to see how it responds to kicking."
BY THE NUMBERS: 0 -- Times Baltimore has swept the AFC North in the franchise's history. A win against the Bengals would give the Ravens their first 6-0 record against divisional foes.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "To be honest with you, it's not good enough for us. It's not good enough for anybody around here, just getting to the playoffs. We've seen that. We've won a playoff game the last three years, and it hasn't been good enough. And it's not good enough for us. We need to go in there, and we need to start playing our best football right now." -- Quarterback Joe Flacco, on making the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
A Baltimore punt-coverage unit that has struggled this season won't get much a reprieve against the Bengals.
Brandon Tate has already set a Cincinnati franchise record with 498 punt-return yards. He has returned a punt for a touchdown, and he has registered five returns of at least 20 yards, which is tied for 10th in the NFL.
Tate faces a Ravens punt-coverage unit that has surrendered two returns for touchdowns -- matching a franchise low set in 2002.
--QB Joe Flacco is on pace to record his lowest completion percentage of his four-year career, having connected on just 56.8 percent of his throws. Only the Jets' Mark Sanchez has a lower completion percentage among quarterbacks who have surpassed the 3,000-yard mark this season.
--RB Ray Rice has recorded three consecutive seasons of 1,000 rushing yards, 60 catches and 500 receiving yards. Only one player has had a longer streak with those numbers: former Rams running back Marshall Faulk, who had a four-year run.
--DT Haloti Ngata has been credited with 60 tackles this season. Ngata is tied for second in that department among defensive tackles with the Bengals' Domata Peko.
--WR David Reed was placed on injured reserve after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while returning a kick Sunday against the Browns. Reed will not complete a season for the second consecutive year. He tore ligaments in his left wrist in 2010.
--OT D.J. Jones was promoted to the active roster from the practice squad. Jones, who was released from the Dolphins' practice squad in October, fills the void created when WR David Reed went on injured reserve.
RG Marshal Yanda was the only starter to miss practice Wednesday. Yanda is dealing with bruised ribs and a bruised thigh suffered in the team's 20-14 win against the Browns.
ILB Dannell Ellerbe (post-concussion symptoms) and DT Arthur Jones (illness) also did not practice.
WR Anquan Boldin (knee surgery) has already been ruled out for Sunday's game at Cincinnati.
A pair of starters, DE Cory Redding and CB Cary Williams, practiced on a limited basis. Redding sat out the contest against Cleveland because of a problematic right ankle. Williams sustained a concussion against the Browns.
K Billy Cundiff, who also did not play Saturday, returned to practice on a limited basis and was not listed on the injury report. That's an encouraging sign that his sore left calf is improving.
GAME PLAN: Cincinnati ranks fifth in the NFL against the run, allowing an average of 96.9 yards this season, but that didn't stop Baltimore from attacking the Bengals with running back Ray Rice, who compiled 104 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in the teams' first meeting. Rice's effectiveness on the ground opened up chances in the aerial attack, which was underscored by quarterback Joe Flacco's 270-yard showing and rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith's 165-yard, one-touchdown performance. On defense, the Ravens found out that Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton is no pushover, as he threw for 373 yards and a touchdown. And Dalton did all that without rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, who was out with a hyperextended right knee. Baltimore did a good job keeping Bengals running back Cedric Benson quiet, holding him to just 41 rush yards, but he did score twice.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Ravens LB Terrell Suggs, who leads the team in sacks with 13, vs. Bengals LT Andrew Whitworth, who has allowed just four sacks this season -- Suggs has recorded just 1 1/2 sacks against Cincinnati since the club drafted him in the second round in 2006.
Ravens WR Torrey Smith, who led the team in targets with seven against the Browns, vs. Bengals CB Nate Clements, who is tied for second on the team with two interceptions -- With Anquan Boldin sidelined for at least one more week, Smith figures to get much of Clements' attention as Baltimore's top wideout.