AFC NORTH PREVIEW: Ravens surging toward playoffs
The reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens are playing significant games in December as usual, surging toward a sixth straight postseason berth.
The slumping Detroit Lions, meanwhile, are trying to avoid a late-season collapse that would keep them out of the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 years.
Baltimore (7-6) has won a season-high three straight at home, but likely has to figure out a way to win on the road to have a shot to defend its title. The Ravens have lost three straight road games and their only win in six chances as a visitor this year was at Miami more than two months ago.
“It’s going to be critical, we’ve got two of the next three on the road,” coach John Harbaugh said. “These games are going to count for really making the difference.”
Detroit (7-6) has lost three of four, blowing fourth-quarter leads in each setback, to fall into a first-place tie with the Chicago Bears. That has given Green Bay an opportunity to contend for the NFC North championship. The Lions haven’t won a division title since 1993.
“For us, the playoffs start now,” Detroit running back Reggie Bush said. “Every game, it’s kind of win or go home.”
The Ravens have gone to the air a lot this season, unable to rely on Ray Rice and the running game as they have in the past. Rice is averaging just 3 yards a carry for a total of 549 yards. Torrey Smith has taken advantage, ranking among NFL leaders with 11 receptions of at least 25 yards, and is approaching his first season with 1,000 yards receiving.
Detroit is looking forward to competing without weather being a factor for at least its next three games, hosting Baltimore and the New York Giants and playing at Minnesota. The Lions lost while playing in several inches of snow at Philadelphia last week, and last month on a soggy surface at Pittsburgh.
“We have really a distinct advantage when we have great footing,” Lions receiver Nate Burleson said. “You’ll see us fly around quite a bit.”
CHICAGO (7-6) AT CLEVELAND (4-9): Jay Cutler is back at quarterback for the Bears, which might not be all that good considering how well backup Josh McCown played. They are averaging 28.3 points per game, their highest total since the 1985 Super Bowl championship team. But the once-proud defense ranks 27th and is dead last against the run.
Cleveland, still smarting from blowing a win at New England, has a particularly dangerous weapon in the passing game in Josh Gordon. His 774 yards receiving in the last four games are the most for a four-game stretch in league history. Gordon leads the NFL with 1,400 yards and he’s done it in 11 games after serving a two-game suspension.