When the NFL schedule was released many months ago, the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens probably figured they would be jockeying for playoff position among the best teams in the AFC entering Sunday's game against the New York Jets.
The Ravens never expected to have a losing record in late November and to be trailing the up-and-down Jets in the race for the final wild-card slot.
Baltimore (4-6) has lost four of five, and the Jets (5-5) have yet to put together a winning streak. Both teams are in the running for the postseason, yet each is teetering on the brink of failure.
"We can't really be in any worse of a situation and still have hope," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said.
A loss would put Baltimore two games behind the Jets, who would then hold the tiebreaker if the teams finished tied. But New York, the first team in NFL history to alternate wins and losses over its first 10 games, is also treating this as a must-win situation.
"At the point in our season right now, it's kind of a little make or break," rookie quarterback Geno Smith said. "So we have to go out there and we have to win. I'm pretty sure they have the same mindset."
"If we don't win this game, it's going to be pretty tough," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I can't think of a situation this year that would be more important than this game."
Here are five things to know about the Jets-Ravens duel:
REX IS BACK: Rex Ryan served on the Ravens' coaching staff from 1999-2008 before leaving to coach the Jets. He's already been back to Baltimore, losing in 2011, and while he will always have warm feelings about the city, this is strictly a business trip.
"There are several people there that are friends of mine and some of the players are still there. It'll be special to see them," Ryan said. "That doesn't mean that I don't want to go out there and win. I want to kick their butts, just like they want to kick mine."
For three hours, all friendships will be on hold.
"Everybody knows the love and respect I have for Rex, but he's not on my team anymore," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We don't wear the same colors. If you're not a part of my team, then you're my enemy."
STRUGGLING QUARTERBACKS: The winner of the game might be the team whose quarterback makes the fewest mistakes. Flacco has a career-high 13 interceptions and is ranked 26th among NFL passers, and Smith has one touchdown pass and eight interceptions in his last five games.
The Ravens hope to exploit Smith's inexperience, but won't overlook his strengths.
"We are looking at Geno Smith as a playmaker," Harbaugh said. "Geno is a big, strong, athletic quarterback. He makes the throws. That's the thing that you see."
REED RETURNS: For the second time this season, longtime Ravens safety Ed Reed will line up with the opposition. He was with Houston in September, and now he's serving as the last line of defense for the Jets.
After leaving the Ravens as a free agent to sign with Houston, Reed received a warm ovation from the Baltimore fans upon his return with the Texans. He's not so sure the same thing will happen Sunday.
"The situation is a little different and the standings are different," Reed said. "Those guys are playing for something. We're playing for something. I'm sure the welcome will be good, though. I spent a lot of time down in Baltimore and plan on spending a lot of time after football in Baltimore."
HOME RUN: This marks the first of three straight home games for the Ravens, who hope to have a winning record before hitting the road again.
Baltimore is 36-8 at home since Harbaugh arrived in 2008, including 9-1 during November. In four home games this season, the Ravens are 3-1 and have allowed just three touchdowns.
The Jets are 1-4 on the road, their only win 30-28 at Atlanta.
"Yes, we've had our share of struggles on the road, so it's going to be a huge test for us," Smith said. "It's pretty much going to tell a lot about this team and our character."
NO ROOM TO RUN: The NFL's best run defense will be matched against the league's 27th-ranked rushing attack.
"(Our running game) hasn't been as productive obviously, anywhere near as productive as we need it to be," Harbaugh said, "which is a real problem because we're playing the top-ranked run defense in football."
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