In control of their playoff fate, the Baltimore Ravens are confident heading into a challenging final quarter of the season.
Looking for a season-high third straight victory, the Ravens hope to continue their home success Sunday while trying to keep the Minnesota Vikings winless on the road.
Sitting two games under .500 and mired in a three-game slide after losing to Cleveland on Nov. 3, Baltimore (6-6) has responded by winning three of four to take ownership of the AFC's final wild-card spot. The Ravens are tied with Miami, but own the tiebreaker based on a 26-23 road win over the Dolphins on Oct. 6.
"We are position to control our own destiny," coach John Harbaugh said. "That is what you try to accomplish going into December. Now it's up to us to make the most of it.
"We just have to win. If we win games, things are going to work out for us."
However, the final stretch likely won't be easy for the Ravens.
After facing the NFL's only team without a road win in Minnesota (3-8-1), Baltimore's final three games are against division leaders Detroit, New England and Cincinnati. It faces the Lions and Bengals on the road.
Harbaugh hopes living through such forgettable moments like the season-opening 49-27 loss at Denver, a last-second 19-16 defeat at Pittsburgh and its first loss in 12 games against the Browns has prepared his team for the stretch run.
"You definitely are a product of your experiences, and adversity is definitely a strength builder, a character builder," he said. "What we've been through has made us what we are right now. I'd like to think it's made us strong emotionally, mentally. And I think our hard work has made us strong physically.
"The idea is to be at your best when it means the most. That's what we try to do. ... We'll find out whether that is the case for this football team."
Baltimore's immediate focus is on trying to win a fourth straight game at home, where it's 5-1 and has allowed 74 points. The Ravens led 13-0 in the third quarter there Thanksgiving night against the Steelers, but needed to stop Pittsburgh's 2-point conversion attempt with 1:03 left to secure a 22-20 victory.
They were grateful the outcome wasn't affected by Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin inadvertently interfering with Jacoby Jones during his 73-yard kickoff return in third quarter. Tomlin was fined $100,000 for the incident.
Baltimore also was fortunate a running game that averages a league-low 2.9 yards per carry didn't prove costly last week. With 74 yards on the ground against the Steelers, the Ravens have rushed for 141 on 56 carries in two games following their season-high 174-yard performance in a 23-20 overtime loss at Chicago on Nov. 17.
Ray Rice has gained 62 yards on 28 carries in the last two after rushing for a season-high 131 and a touchdown on 25 attempts against the Bears.
The Ravens' offense could get a boost if tight end Dennis Pitta is ready to make his season debut Sunday after suffering a hip injury during training camp. Pitta set career highs with 61 receptions, 669 yards and seven TDs last season.
Baltimore has benefited from the accuracy of Justin Tucker, who has made nine field goals and been responsible for 29 of his team's 41 points over the last two games. He's 27 of 27, including 4 for 4 from at least 50 yards, since missing his only two field-goal chances during a 14-6 win over Cleveland in Week 2.
Minnesota's Blair Walsh made a 30-yard field goal to force overtime last Sunday, then missed a 57-yarder in the extra session before he connected from 34 to give the Vikings a 23-20 win over Chicago.
Minnesota, which overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, is 2-1-1 since losing seven of eight.
"You have got to believe, you can't tuck your tail and run, you can't give up no matter how it looks you have to continue to fight," said Vikings star Adrian Peterson, who set season highs with 211 yards on 35 carries.
"That's one thing that we have done all year; I haven't seen guys quit. When I look in their eyes there is fight there."
The Vikings hope to further display that fight and turn things around the road, where they are 0-5-1. Minnesota last went without a road victory during its 5-11 2001 season.
Peterson has endured a trying season both on and off the field, but leads the NFL with 1,208 rushing yards and has 357 in the last two games.
Matt Cassel will get his first start since Oct. 13 after rallying the Vikings against Chicago. Christian Ponder left after taking a hit to the head in the second quarter, and Cassel went 20 of 33 for 243 yards with a TD and an INT in relief.
Coach Leslie Frazier said Friday that Ponder had yet to pass all of his post-concussion tests.
In Minnesota's three victories, Cassel has started one and finished the other two.
Peterson rushed for 143 yards and Rice totaled 194 and had two touchdowns during Minnesota's 33-31 home victory over the Ravens in 2009.
The Associated Press News Service
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