OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — After missing the postseason for three straight years, the Baltimore Ravens probably wouldn't complain at all about squeezing into this year's playoffs as a wild card.
Entering as AFC North champions is so much better — a scenario that stands as a distinct possibility entering the final weekend of the regular season.
Thanks to a Lamar Jackson-infused surge of five wins in six games, the Ravens are on the cusp of winning the division and hosting a first-round game. All it will take for that to happen is a victory Sunday at home against the Cleveland Browns (7-7-1).
"That's definitely the first goal, to be division champions," coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "And we're playing a championship game on Sunday. That's what you work for."
Baltimore was 4-5 on Nov. 4 before entering its bye week. An injury to Joe Flacco paved the way for Jackson to take over at quarterback, and the Ravens promptly turned their season around by combining a sound running game with the top-ranked defense in the NFL.
Now, after Baltimore (9-6) upset the Los Angeles Chargers on the road Saturday night and Pittsburgh lost in New Orleans on Sunday, the Ravens are poised to win their first AFC North title since 2012.
"That's what we put in all that time for," Harbaugh said. "In order to do that, we've had to weather some storms and overcome some challenges and win some games. Guys have done a great job. We appreciate where we're at. This is the opportunity that we wanted, and now it's ours to go get."
The Ravens have been here before, with lamentable results. Two years ago, they lost in Pittsburgh on Christmas night in a matchup for the division crown. Last year, Baltimore had its playoff hopes crushed by the Cincinnati Bengals in the season finale when Tyler Boyd caught a 49-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass with 44 seconds left.
Harbaugh doesn't intend to remind the team about that game because, well, those who experienced it won't soon forget it.
"We all know where we've been. We don't need to talk about anything," he said. "When you have a gut-wrenching experience, a tough one like we've had the last two years, you take those with you. It makes you stronger. It forges you as a person, as a competitor."
This isn't the same team as last year, the year before, or even the 2012 version that rode Flacco's arm to a world championship. A year ago, Jackson was preparing to lead Louisville against Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and Don Martindale was working with the Ravens linebackers under defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
Now, Jackson is in charge of a flourishing offense that counts heavily on ball control and Martindale oversees a blitzing, gambling defense that has allowed fewer yards and fewer points than any unit in the league.
"The whole idea is to impose your will on your opponent however you can do it, based on your personnel and how you want to play, and what your fundamental beliefs are," Harbaugh said. "It's pretty clear what we're trying to do. We'll just try to roll with that and see what happens."
On Friday night, just over 24 hours before the Ravens faced the Chargers, the team announced that Harbaugh would return for the 2019 season and both sides are working on an extension to his contract.
If the gesture was meaningful to the coach, he opted to keep it to himself on Monday.
"That stuff is just really not something that you dwell on or think about," he said.
After Saturday's victory, however, Jackson appeared delighted with the news.
"That's pretty cool," the rookie said. "He was the coach that was here when I got drafted and he's going to be here while I keep excelling and keep improving, so yes, I love it."
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