Just a month ago, it seemed the phrase "Super Bowl hangover" might define the Baltimore Ravens' season.
After four straight wins, they control their fate in the AFC North and can clinch a playoff berth for the sixth straight season this week with a little cooperation from the league.
First, they'll need to take care of business at home Sunday against the New England Patriots, for whom the playoff formula is a little easier to follow: Beat the Ravens and a fifth straight AFC East title is theirs.
The Ravens (8-6) are also after their fifth straight home win and third in a row over the Patriots (10-4) after beating them in the regular season last year and the AFC championship.
"We're playing our best football right now," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We're going to have to continue to improve with what we have in front of us down the stretch."
In Monday night's 18-16 win at Detroit, Justin Tucker's leg bailed out an offense that continued to stall in Lions territory and failed to reach the end zone. He made six field goals, including a 61-yard winner in the final minute to set a franchise record.
Tucker last missed in Week 2 at Cleveland, and his 33 straight makes is the NFL's longest streak since Matt Stover made 36 in a row for the Ravens from 2005-06.
"What can you say about Justin Tucker?" Harbaugh said. "When we got the ball there, I think at the 45-yard line, I said, 'Hey, are we kicking this?' ... He said, 'I got it.'"
The Patriots didn't have it on a potential game-winning drive in last Sunday's 24-20 loss at Miami as they failed in their first shot at clinching the division.
Tom Brady moved the Patriots 61 yards to the Dolphins' 19 with 27 seconds left before failing on the final four plays.
"We didn't do a good job in the red area, and didn't do a good job finishing drives," Brady said. "We came up on the short end of the stick. It wasn't a good day. Just couldn't make enough plays."
When they did make plays, Brady leaned heavily on slot receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Again without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who landed on injured reserve with a torn ACL and MCL suffered Dec. 8, the duo combined for 23 receptions and 270 yards. Edelman's 89 catches rank fifth in the league.
After a slow start to the year, the passing game has been more Patriot-like over the last six weeks. Brady leads the league with 2,225 passing yards since Nov. 3, and he's throw 14 touchdowns with four interceptions in that span. Whether they can convert in the red zone without Gronkowski, something they struggled with in the first six games without him, remains to be seen.
Last week's loss denied the Patriots their own four-game winning streak, though it was the fifth straight game in which they trailed in the fourth quarter. That's been the case in every road game but one for New England, which has lost four of its last five away from Foxborough while maintaining a 7-0 home record.
The Patriots' three road wins have come against Buffalo, Atlanta and Houston - all last-place teams that are a combined 11-31.
"They're playing better football now than they were in the beginning of the season," New England defensive end Rob Ninkovich said.
In typical Ravens fashion, they haven't done it with gaudy offensive numbers. Consistency has been enough as they've averaged 313.3 yards in their last four games, never straying below 305 or above 325. They've turned the ball over four times during the winning streak and haven't allowed over 26 points since a 49-27 Week 1 loss at Denver.
They also seem to have figured out their pass protection. Joe Flacco has been sacked a career-high 42 times, but only five of those have come in the last three games.
Still, Flacco took a shot in the left knee Monday after being struck by the helmet of oncoming Lions lineman DeAndre Levy and will wear a brace against the Patriots.
He says his knee is 'a little stiff,' but does not expect it to be a hindrance against New England.
"(They) play the game the right way," Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said. "They don't back down from anyone and they always compete. So it's never easy playing those guys."
The Patriots haven't lost consecutive games since Week 3 of 2012, a 31-30 defeat at Baltimore that followed a 20-18 loss to Arizona.
The Associated Press News Service
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