OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — A year ago, the Baltimore Ravens earned a trip to the playoffs by squeezing past Cleveland on the final day of the regular season.
The Ravens have already qualified for a return trip, and it's quite possible they can clinch the top seed in the AFC before the season finale against Pittsburgh.
Baltimore (11-2) has won nine straight and holds a commanding lead in the AFC with three weeks to go. The Ravens' closest pursuer is New England (10-3), which is essentially 1 1/2 games back because Baltimore owns the tiebreaker by virtue of its 37-20 victory over the Patriots last month.
A victory over the New York Jets at home on Thursday night will assure the Ravens a second straight AFC North title. Then, by defeating the Browns on Dec. 22, Baltimore will clinch a first-round bye and home-field advantage up to the Super Bowl.
This year, just getting into the playoffs isn't good enough.
“It's cool," quarterback Lamar Jackson said, “but we're trying to finish out."
Jackson was limited to 40 yards rushing but threw three touchdown passes Sunday in a 24-17 victory at Buffalo. He hurt his quadriceps when hit in the pocket during the fourth quarter and was listed on the injury report Monday.
“They hit him down there around the knee," coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “It's not a serious injury, but this is day to day when you play Thursday night, so we'll see where we're at."
The Ravens were delighted to beat the Bills, who came in with a three-game winning streak and were just a game behind Baltimore in the race for the best record in the AFC. After the game, however, the mood in the locker room was anything but overly rambunctious.
“This game means nothing unless you win the next one,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said.
Harbaugh said: “We've got be ready to play our best game on Thursday night because there's so much at stake. Our guys understand what we're trying to accomplish."
The defense stepped up for the second week in a row during a season in which Jackson and the running game have carried the team to unprecedented heights.
Buffalo could muster only 209 yards and was 4 for 17 on third downs. Baltimore made six sacks, and cornerback Marcus Peters saved the win by knocking away a fourth-down pass in the closing minutes.
“Our defense was the key to victory," Jackson acknowledged.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Ravens were limited to 118 yards rushing, but it would be crazy to suggest that the running game needs to improve.
Of far greater concern were the nine penalties for 99 yards, including three on Buffalo's final drive.
Michael Pierce received an unnecessary roughness call for aggressively lifting and hurling a runner to the ground — a call Harbaugh questioned.
“Ï don't know what to tell him on that,” Harbaugh said.
After tight end Mark Andrews left with a knee injury, 2018 first-round draft pick Hayden Hurst stepped in and caught three passes for 73 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown.
“I think the guys have faith in me to make plays like that," said Hurst, who's operated in the shadow of fellow tight ends Andrews and Nick Boyle over the past two seasons.
Mark Ingram was held to 50 yards rushing by a rugged Buffalo defense. He averaged 3.3 yards a carry, 1.7 yards less than his average coming in.
In addition to Jackson and Andrews, offensive tackle Orlando Brown was listed on the injury report with a concussion. Brown participated in Monday's walk-through and Andrews' injury is not serious, according to Harbaugh.
22 — That's how many yards Jackson needs on the ground to tie Michael Vick's single-season record for quarterbacks. Jackson (1,017 yards) and Vick are the only QBs in NFL history to reach the 1,000-yard mark.
The Jets (5-8) have won four of five, so this may not be the mismatch it appeared to be a month ago.