OWINGS MILLS, Maryland — During a season filled with unexpected obstacles and aggravating injuries, the Baltimore Ravens appear to be finally catching a break in their effort to earn a playoff berth.
After squeezing past struggling Jacksonville 20-12 on Sunday, Baltimore (9-5) moved into the AFC's second wild-card slot and remained tied with Pittsburgh in the AFC North, a half-game behind Cincinnati (8-4-1).
It's come down to this: Baltimore will clinch a postseason berth — its sixth in the past seven years — with victories in its last two games.
"Two games left, two wins needed," coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "That's probably what I'll be saying to the guys tomorrow."
The schedule appears favorable. This week's opponent, Houston, lost two quarterbacks to injury in a 17-10 defeat in Indianapolis on Sunday.
Baltimore then wraps up the regular season at home against fading Cleveland, which lost 30-0 to Cincinnati on Sunday.
Even better for the Ravens: Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are looking at a potentially rough home stretch. The Steelers (9-5) host Kansas City (8-6) on Sunday and Cincinnati takes on Denver (11-3). Then, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh square off in the season finale Dec. 28.
Harbaugh is concerned only about Baltimore, and he isn't taking anything for granted — even though Houston (7-7) will likely start either Thaddeus Lewis or Case Keenum at quarterback. Lewis joined the team last month and Keenum was signed Monday after being cut in the preseason.
The Ravens can't be overconfident, though, not after their uneven performance against the Jaguars (2-12).
"We didn't play as well as we hoped or as we planned for," Harbaugh acknowledged. "We anticipated a tough game. Anybody that would anticipate a blowout in this league is a fool."
The Ravens won the game but lost two more defensive backs. Cornerback Asa Jackson and safety Terrence Brooks sustained season-ending knee injuries and will soon will join cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Danny Gorrer, Aaron Ross and Tramain Jacobs on injured reserve.
Baltimore is also playing without suspended defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, the second player on the team to be suspended by the NFL this season (along with Ray Rice).
In spite of it all, the Ravens are right where they want to be with two weeks to go.
"I'm excited about our team. I like where we're at," Harbaugh said. "I think we're getting stronger and I also think there's room for improvement, which gives me a lot of encouragement and excitement."
There's also something to be said for a team that wins when it doesn't play particularly well. Baltimore's offense produced only one touchdown and trailed at halftime before rallying past the Jaguars.
"It would have (stunk) if we lost," said Terrell Suggs, who had 2 1/2 of Baltimore's eight sacks. "But you've got to commend this whole team, offense and defense alike for putting it away this time. Last time we were here, we let one get away from us, and we couldn't close it out. Good teams, they don't make the same mistake twice and we did a good job of finishing in the fourth quarter."
Suggs was referring to the Ravens' lone loss in their past five games, a 34-33 disappointment at home against San Diego on Nov. 30. After that one, Baltimore's playoff hopes seemed iffy.
"We have to win in December, and we've been able to do that," running back Justin Forsett said. "Now we have to keep it going."
Harbaugh will be looking for perfection in Houston on Sunday, or at least something close.
"We've yet to play our best game, by far," he said. "Our best game is out there yet. Hopefully it's going to come soon."
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