The Baltimore Ravens are in a two-team race atop the AFC North, but in the past few weeks they've been getting an up-close look at what may be the NFL's best division - thanks greatly to one serious surprise.
That unexpected NFC South contender is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will try to hand Baltimore its first home loss in more than a year as the Ravens close a three-game interconference stretch Sunday.
Baltimore (7-3) and Pittsburgh are tied for the AFC North lead in a race that could leave the winner with a first-round bye, while a postseason berth isn't even a sure thing for the runner-up.
The Ravens got back on track after a 26-21 loss at NFC South-leading Atlanta by visiting the division's last-place team. Not everything came easy Sunday at Carolina, but Ed Reed and Ray Lewis both had late fourth-quarter interceptions that were brought back for touchdowns, turning a 10-point lead into a 37-13 victory.
Reed pitched his interception to Dawan Landry, who took it 23 yards into the end zone.
"To play like this in the fourth quarter and close the game out is huge," said Reed, who has four interceptions in as many games since returning from a hip injury. "Coming off the loss against Atlanta, we want to build on this and build on the season and play better and close out games.
"We need to do it from start to finish if we want to compete in late December."
While it's no shock the Ravens are in good shape to reach a third consecutive postseason, it's fairly stunning the Bucs (7-3) are in contention to return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
A 3-13 finish in 2009 seems to be a distant memory for Tampa Bay, which is coming off its finest defensive performance in years. The Bucs held San Francisco to 189 total yards, sacked Troy Smith six times and produced two turnovers Sunday in a 21-0 road win, their first shutout since 2004.
Tampa Bay came into the game with the league's 22nd-ranked defense.
"I told you guys, stats are for losers," coach Raheem Morris said. "We don't deal with that. We deal with playing hard, playing fast, playing smart and playing consistent."
That won't be easy to do in Baltimore - where the Ravens have won seven straight since last November - but quarterback Josh Freeman seems to be capable of avoiding mistakes against a defense built on producing them.
Freeman has been picked off just five times in 388 attempts this season for an interception rate of 1.7 percent, seventh-best in the league. That's after a rookie season in which he was picked off 18 times in 290 attempts, a 6.2 percent rate.
That improvement is among the reasons Baltimore coach John Harbaugh is concerned.
"They are a young, aggressive football team that believes in themselves," Harbaugh said. "Josh Freeman is playing at a high level. He's making a lot of great decisions.
"It's just a really talented football team, and they're for real. So, it's going to be a heck of a game here come Sunday afternoon."
As efficient as Freeman has been lately, Baltimore's Joe Flacco has been better. The third-year passer has completed 68.1 percent of his throws in the last five games with 11 touchdowns and one interception.
Not everything seems perfect between Flacco and his receiving corps, however. Derrick Mason and Flacco had to be separated on the sidelines in Carolina during a heated exchange initiated by the veteran receiver, an incident Harbaugh said he addressed.
If there's a way for opponents to frustrate Flacco and the Ravens' offense, it's on third downs. Flacco has a 92.1 passer rating, but that drops to 66.6 on third down, when Baltimore has converted just 33.9 percent of the time in its past five games.
Freeman, whose overall rating (92.0) mirrors Flacco, gets better (93.7) on third downs. Tampa Bay has converted 20 of 37 (54.1 percent) in its past three games.
The best way for Baltimore to win Sunday might be to get Ray Rice involved. The Bucs are 29th in the league against the run, allowing 136.5 yards per game, and they've yielded at least 130 in each of their three losses.
Rice hasn't been quite the gamebreaker he was last season, however. Through 10 games in 2009, Rice was averaging 5.0 yards per carry and had seven total touchdowns. This season, he's gaining 4.0 per carry and has only three TDs.
If history is any indication, Sunday's game won't be close. Tampa Bay leads the series 2-1, but the last two games produced shutouts - a 25-0 Bucs win in Baltimore in 2002 and a 27-0 Ravens rout at Tampa in 2006.