John Harbaugh had a respectable record in December, going 11-5 during the month, until now.
The Baltimore Ravens and their head coach have fallen on hard times this month with three straight losses and their playoff chances will take a hit if the New York Giants bring their A-game to M&T Bank Stadium Sunday afternoon.
Harbaugh and the Ravens are 0-3 in December after winning four in a row for a seemingly-comfortable 9-2 record. Now the Ravens are just a game ahead of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh is two games off the mark with two to go. Baltimore, though, can wrap up its second straight AFC North title with a win.
"I'm disappointed with how we played the last couple of weeks, because it hasn't been good enough to find a way to win," Harbaugh said. "But, I'm proud of the way we fight. I'm proud of the way our guys compete. I'm proud of the way they overcome adversity. And, we'll take all that into the next week and see how we do."
Harbaugh admitted that this three-game losing streak has been difficult and also challenging. The Ravens have been in every game during the slide save last Sunday's 34-17 loss at home to Peyton Manning and the hard-charging Denver Broncos. The game would have been even more lopsided had it not been for Joe Flacco's two touchdown passes to tight end Dennis Pitta in the fourth quarter. Harbaugh went on to say that he is anxious to see how his team responds to adversity.
The Ravens will have to react quickly or they will lose out on a chance to bring home another division crown. Already with a playoff berth sewn up, the Ravens have lost two straight at home for the first time since a nine-game overall slide back in 2007.
When asked what the team has to do to get better, Harbaugh was to the point.
"Get healthy, get better. We've got work to do, and like we always do, we're going to try to become ... we're going to do everything we can do and fight like crazy to become ... the team that we're capable of becoming," Harbaugh said. "And we're not that team yet. It's a long season, but all of our goals and all of our dreams are squarely in front of us. And that's what we're shooting for."
The Ravens will close out the regular season Dec. 30 at the Bengals.
New York still has a shot at the playoffs and needs a win plus losses by the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins this week to capture a second straight postseason appearance.
The Giants were waxed, 34-0, by the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday and lost for the fourth time in the last six weeks. They were credited with just 256 total yards, including 161 by Eli Manning, who completed 13-of-25 passes with no touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. Manning has been picked off twice in each of the past two games and has five multi-interception games in 2012.
"There's things we've got to improve on, things we'll work on to get better, but it's not going to change our desire, our focus this week to prepare and go out there and try to put ourselves in a chance to win games," Manning said.
This is not uncharted territory for the G-men, who have made it a living to regroup toward seasons end as evidenced by a pair of Super Bowl wins in the previous five years. Another loss, however, will be detrimental in the Giants' chances of defending their crown and it won't be easy on the road in a hostile environment. That means Manning, and more notably the ground game, has to put forth a much better effort than last week.
Besides blocking for the run attack, the offensive line hasn't had many problems. In fact, the line has yielded an NFL-best 15 sacks (16 total) through the first 14 games. That gives Manning enough time to find one of his speedy targets and move up the team charts in completions. With his 13 completions in Atlanta, Manning became the franchise-leader with 2,585 completions, surpassing Phil Simms (2,576).
Manning is also 410 yards shy of 4,000 passing yards and has reached that mark in each of the past three seasons for the Giants, who find themselves in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East, However, New York's 3-2 division record is only better than last-place Philadelphia (1-3). The Giants can capture a division title if they win both of their games and the Cowboys and Redskins each lose at least once.
Manning was asked about the confidence level heading into Sunday.
"The confidence is great," Manning said. "Your confidence is high because of the coaches that we have, the character of the players we have, the talent of the players we have and our preparation will be good. We're going to have a chance to go out there and perform well."
New York, which will host Philadelphia in the season finale, has played well in games after a loss, going 4-1. In those games they are averaging 37.0 ppg.
The Giants won the last meeting with Baltimore by a 30-10 score back in 2008 and are 1-2 in the regular season in this series. Baltimore, of course, hammered the G-men, 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Giants are hoping starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw can make an impact Sunday and he missed the loss to Atlanta with a sprained knee suffered in a blowout victory over New Orleans. The last 1,000-yard rusher for New York with 1,235 in 2010, Bradshaw has 869 yards this season and was replaced by rookie David Wilson last week. Wilson had 55 yards on 12 carries.
Bradshaw was interviewed by ESPN this week and was asked about Sunday.
"I'm playing," Bradshaw said. "I just have to get it through to Tom Coughlin and the training staff. As of right now, I feel like I can go and be ready Sunday."
Bradshaw, of course, has to be cleared by team doctors and Coughlin, but the Giants would be foolish not use one of their top offensive weapons if he's ready to go.
"You have to gain his trust," Bradshaw said of Coughlin. "I guess I have to do it through the week with my mental focus in meetings. Hopefully on Friday and Saturday, I can be there."
Bradshaw's possible return could give New York the advantage since the Ravens were thrashed by Denver last week to the tune of 163 rushing yards. Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno had 118 yards and a score on 22 carries. The Ravens are 22nd against the rush, allowing 242.1 ypg.
Baltimore needs a boost from its ground game, too, after Ray Rice was limited to 38 yards on 12 carries in last week's loss. Granted the Ravens were down early and often by double digits, the offense could have used Rice on the ground more than 12 times.
Rice needs 42 yards from scrimmage to reach 1,500 for a fourth straight season. He averages 5.1 yards per carry against the NFC as well.
The Ravens' defense is led by safety Bernard Pollard, who has a team-high 98 tackles on the season. The Ravens know they will be in for a long afternoon if they're not prepared for Manning and his offensive weapons.
"We dug this hole that we're in. We can't blame nobody but ourselves," Pollard said. "I've said this from the get go, and I've said this my whole career, it takes some people to eat humble pie before they realize the things that they need to do. We don't like this situation we're in. We don't like losing three straight games. Nobody does. But it's just to the point now where we have to get back at it."
It has been speculated this could be the final home game for Ravens studs Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Lewis is still on the injured reserve recall list because of a triceps injury and Reed's contract is winding down.
New York's defense has forced at least one turnover in 42 of the last 46 games, including the playoffs. Flacco was picked off once versus Denver and the Ravens fumbled three times, losing one.
Sunday's clash between the Ravens and Giants is critical for both. Yes, Baltimore has already clinched a playoff berth, but winning the AFC North is a goal the team set out to accomplish during training camp. The same goes for the Giants, who need to win out in order to stay on track for a postseason spot and possibly an NFC East crown. Running the football and smart play will be vital and lately this is the time of year the Giants do it the best.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 23, Ravens 17