Not really a 'must win' situation for Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice calls Sunday's game at the Cleveland Browns a "must win." Backup running back Bernard Pierce described it as a "must win."

So, are the defending Super Bowl champions facing a "must win" situation in Week 9? Not exactly.

A victory would put Baltimore back at .500 and end a two-game losing streak. A loss would put a dent in the Ravens' chances to three-peat as AFC North champions but they still play the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals twice in the second half of the season. The Bengals currently hold a 2.5-game advantage over the Ravens.

But a loss doesn't crush the Ravens' playoff hopes, thanks to the mediocrity in the AFC. Only six of the 16 teams in this conference have winning records. The Ravens (3-4) are one game behind San Diego (4-3) for the sixth and final postseason spot in the AFC. If you think the Ravens have a tough second-half schedule, remember the Chargers have four games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos, who are a combined 15-1.

The other teams vying for that last spot are the New York Jets (4-4), who are starting a rookie quarterback and just got routed by 40 points; the Tennessee Titans (3-4), who are starting banged-up quarterback Jake Locker, the Oakland Raiders (3-4), who haven't had a winning record since 2002; and the Miami Dolphins (3-4), who already lost to the Ravens. None of these teams should scare Baltimore, even though there are signs that the Ravens aren't exactly the Ravens this season.

I would agree that this is a "must win" in terms of confidence building. Under coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 11-0 against the Browns and 5-0 coming off byes. A loss Sunday would be a clear indication that these aren't the same Ravens.

"It’s November football," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "At this point, they’re all big – [especially] after the bye. They all count. Not to say the ones before didn’t, but these decide whether or not you get a chance at greatness.”

In the big picture, the Ravens have to win at least six of their remaining nine games to remain in the hunt. Winning seven games the rest of the way would essentially secure the Ravens' sixth straight trip to the postseason. What works in the Ravens' favor is five of their last eight games are at home, where Baltimore is 35-8 under Harbaugh.

"I just firmly believe we know what’s at stake," Rice said. "We know what time of year it is. I think Coach Harbaugh will tell you we’ve built this team on November and December football to obviously have a chance to play in January, and then you know what happens after that. That’s where we’re at these next couple of weeks. If you want a chance to play in January, you’ve got to take care of your business in November and December. And it just so happens the first of the month is coming up, and we start our new chapter right now.”