BALTIMORE — The formula is simple for the Baltimore Ravens.
With a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the regular-season finale Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens would clinch the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs.
Baltimore (9-6) also can advance to the postseason for the first time since 2014 if both the Buffalo Bills (8-7) and Tennessee Titans (8-7) lose or tie. The Ravens, however, are fully focused on controlling their own destiny and are not taking the Bengals lightly, despite Cincinnati’s 6-9 record.
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“You definitely don’t look past the Bengals,” Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “You always know that’s a tough game, and we’ve got to make sure we start fast.”
The Ravens, who won five of their past six games, are averaging 29.8 points in their past eight games. Quarterback Joe Flacco has played a key role in that resurgence, throwing 11 touchdown passes against just four interceptions over that stretch.
“Our goal is to get to playoffs, and once you get to those games, you can’t rely on winning by 20 or 30 points,” Flacco said. “You have to be able to rely on playing 60 minutes and being able to have the nerve and everything else that goes along with that.”
Baltimore dominated the Bengals and forced five turnovers in a 20-0 victory in the regular-season opener. The Ravens won in Cincinnati for the first time since 2012.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his players expect a tougher matchup this time around. The Ravens and Bengals traditionally have a tight rivalry. Baltimore holds a slight 22-21 advantage in the series.
The Bengals are effective getting to quarterbacks, as they are tied for seventh in the NFL with 40 sacks. Harbaugh is wary of that defense.
“They have a very good defensive line — one of the best in the league,” Harbaugh said. “They are a very tough group to block, so we are going to have to be at our best.”
The regular-season finale could also mark the end of coach Marvin Lewis’ 15-year tenure in Cincinnati. Therefore, his players might be looking to send him out on a high note. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since the 1990 season, and Lewis has gone 0-7 in the postseason.
Lewis dismissed the notion this could be his last game.
“Emotional? Why? Do you know something I don’t know?” said Lewis, who is a former Ravens defensive coordinator. “We had to battle the war of attrition once again. Guys had to step up and play. We’re not done yet.”
Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said of Lewis, “I would love to see him come back as a football coach, but obviously, the decision is I guess his to make. The respect between him and the organization is mutual. So, whatever happens is going to happen.”
The Bengals have struggled this season partly because of their failure to move the ball. They have the league’s 32nd-ranked offense and been hampered with injuries. In his past three games, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown for two touchdowns while getting picked off four times.
However, Cincinnati had an uplifting 26-17 victory last week against the Detroit Lions, who were consequently eliminated from the playoffs. Dalton vowed the Bengals plan to play hard until the final whistle.
“Complacency can set in, but that’s what you have to fight at this point,” Dalton said.
A victory over Cincinnati would send Baltimore to play the AFC West-champion Chiefs at Kansas City during the first round of the playoffs.
The Ravens typically are at their best during this point of the season. Baltimore is 16-7 at home in December under Harbaugh, who took over the team 2008. Still, the Ravens are wary.
“We expect that (Cincinnati) team to be highly motivated come Sunday,” Harbaugh said, referencing Lewis’ status.
The Baltimore players are embracing the must-win scenario.
“For us, over the last four or five weeks, it’s been that win-and-you’re-in mentality,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “We’ve understood that it’s important for us to win every single week, especially in December, late in the season. Although this is the next opponent and the most important game right now for us this season, it’s kind of the mode we’ve already been in, understanding the urgency of ‘right now.'”