OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The Baltimore Ravens enter the most difficult part of the schedule coming off their most dominant performance of the season.
Coach John Harbaugh hopes the boost in morale derived from a 55-20 rout of Oakland will carry into Sunday night's showdown against Pittsburgh — and beyond that.
"I think confidence is borne of success," Harbaugh said Monday. "When you do things well, it's a positive thing. It doesn't guarantee anything, just like if you're struggling the week before it doesn't guarantee that you can't do something. Every week does stand on its own, but playing well is a good thing. We'd like to build on that."
Before facing the Raiders on Sunday, the Ravens were sporadic on offense and victimized by inconsistent defensive play. Both units excelled against Oakland, and special teams contributed two touchdowns to the highest-scoring output in franchise history.
Baltimore's previous five wins were by 1, 7, 3, 2 and 10 points. This one was 27-10 at halftime, the Ravens' largest margin at the break this season.
"We always want to play well and play like that and try to get after teams,' guard Marshal Yanda said. "It was important for us to play well and kind of get this thing rolling a little bit."
Baltimore (7-2) stands alone atop the AFC North, but the final seven weeks offer a steep challenge. After Sunday night's game, the Ravens travel to San Diego, where they lost 34-14 last year. Baltimore then hosts the Steelers. The final four games are at Washington, at home against Denver, a matchup at home against the defending NFL champion New York Giants and at Cincinnati.
Harbaugh is usually a one-game-at-a-time kind of guy, but he knew months ago that Baltimore's bid to reach the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year would hinge upon its success over the final seven weeks.
"When the schedule first came out, we knew it was going to be an important stretch for us, and here it is," he said. "Fortunately, we've been good enough to put ourselves in position to make it meaningful, Now it's our job to make the most of it."
It begins with a duel against the Steelers, Baltimore's biggest rival. Harbaugh won't have to make any emotional speech to get the players up for this one.
"I think it's the best week of the year because it's where we feel the most comfortable, probably," the coach said. "It's where I feel the most comfortable, and I think our players and coaches feel the same way. It means so much to both teams. We like being in this week, we love playing these guys, we love the preparation for these guys. I'd say it's the best week of the year. Both of them."
The Ravens went 10 weeks (including the bye) without seeing the Steelers. Now they've got them twice in the next three weeks.
"We play them sandwiched around a trip to San Diego, so that will be a big challenge for us," Harbaugh said. "We just have to deal with it and make it good."
Baltimore beat the Raiders without defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (shoulder) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (groin). Both are expected to be ready by Sunday.
"Haloti and Jimmy resting should a plus for us," Harbaugh said.
"If they would have needed me I would have gone out," said Ngata, who watched from the sideline in full uniform.
The Ravens could afford to rest Ngata and Smith against the Raiders (3-6). The mindset will be completely different in Pittsburgh (5-3 before Monday night's game against Kansas City)."
"Every game is a different animal," Yanda said. "Come next Sunday, we understand that it won't be like this (Oakland) game."
Still, the Ravens couldn't have imagined a better prelude to Pittsburgh week than a 35-point, record-setting victory.
"We're starting the second half of the season now and it's a great way to start it — with a win like that where we really executed well in all three phases," said tight end Dennis Pitta, who had five catches for 67 yards and a touchdown. "It was a great game for us and gives us a lot of momentum moving forward."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL