Challenging Stretch

Baltimore, MD - Though they've struggled against the league's top teams, the Baltimore Ravens have feasted on lesser competition to put themselves in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt.

Their first game in a make-or-break December pits them against a team that's followed a similar pattern lately.

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The Ravens go for their seventh win in eight games on Sunday night when they open a challenging stretch by visiting the mercurial Washington Redskins.

Oddsmakers from online sports book have made the Ravens -5 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 62% of bets for this game have been placed on the Ravens -5 (View NFL Football bet percentages).

Despite playing for a rookie coach, employing a first-year quarterback and playing with much the same roster that went 5-11 last season, Baltimore (8-4) is only one game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North and currently in position to make the postseason as a wild-card team.

The Ravens' favorable position entering the last month of the season is largely due to their success against teams they've been expected to beat. They're 6-0 against teams with losing records, including a combined 4-0 against division rivals Cleveland and Cincinnati.

But Baltimore is just 2-4 against teams with winning records. That includes a 31-3 loss to Indianapolis and a 30-10 defeat against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

While that doesn't bode well for a three-week stretch that features matchups with Washington (7-5), Pittsburgh and Dallas, Ravens coach John Harbaugh insists that his team has nothing to prove.

"Our guys have earned the right to be playing meaningful football games in December," he said Monday, one day after the Ravens routed the Bengals 34-3 in Cincinnati. "That's all we care about."

Harbaugh's club has outscored opponents 70-10 in back-to-back victories, and while that kind of dominant defense has become the standard in Baltimore under coordinator Rex Ryan, the offense has been delivering nearly as consistently lately. After averaging 15.6 points during their 2-3 start, the Ravens have surpassed that mark in all but one game during their 6-1 run, averaging 30.6 points overall in that stretch.

Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco has keyed the surge. The first-round pick from Delaware has thrown 11 touchdowns with only two interceptions in the last seven games, and is getting comfortable taking more chances with his receivers.

"I think you see they're starting to come alive and make all the plays, not just one out of so many" Flacco said after completing 19-of-29 for 280 yards and two touchdowns last Sunday. "I'm starting to trust them more, so I'm putting the ball where they're going to get it."

While the Ravens have begun to thrive in their first year with Harbaugh and Flacco, the Redskins (7-5) have slowed down after a hot start in their first season under coach Jim Zorn.

Jason Campbell got a lot of the credit after posting three straight games with a 100-plus passer rating as part of Washington's 4-1 start, but now he's the focal point of criticism after throwing just four touchdown passes in his last seven games. The Redskins are 3-4 in that stretch.

"We started out so fast," Campbell said. "We got on such a streak that we were scoring so fast that expectations and everything on our team went through the roof, and people forgot we were still in this thing in its first year."

Washington's recent struggles are partially due to the team's inability to hang with tough opponents. The Redskins were considered contenders after notching back-to-back road wins over highly touted division rivals Dallas and Philadelphia on Sept. 28 and Oct. 5, respectively. Since then, however, they're 0-3 against teams with winning records.

The Redskins, whose lone win in November was over lowly Seattle, gave up a season-high 404 total yards in a 23-7 home loss to the Giants last Sunday.

"There's still a long road ahead of us," said running back Clinton Portis, who entered the game as the league's leading rusher before getting held to a season-low 22 yards on 11 carries.

"We're not out of the playoffs. Back two weeks ago, everybody was crucifying the Cowboys. Now they're back to America's greatest team. Now we're in the same situation."

Though he says it's too early to count the Redskins out, Portis could have a hard time bouncing back against the Ravens, who haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 31 games, the longest current streak in the NFL. They're holding opponents to an average of 78.3 yards on the ground, third-fewest in the league.

Top Betting Trends:
All games in this series since 1992
BALTIMORE is 2-1 against the spread versus WASHINGTON since 1992
BALTIMORE is 2-1 straight up against WASHINGTON since 1992
3 of 3 games in this series have gone UNDER THE TOTAL since 1992
Key Player Injuries
[DE] Alex Buzbee IR - Achilles - 09/04/08
[WR] Malcolm Kelly missed last game %27?%27 - Knee - 11/16/08
[DT] Anthony Montgomery missed last game , "?" - Achilles - 11/17/08
[RB] Ladell Betts injured last game %27?%27 - Knee - 11/16/08
[LB] Phillip Daniels IR - Knee - 07/21/08
[LB] Marcus Washington is out indefinitely - Ankle - 11/17/08
[CB] Shawn Springs missed last game %27?%27 - Calf - 11/16/08
[WR] Antwaan Randle-El injured last game, "?" - Ankle - 11/17/08
[SS] Reed Doughty IR - Back - 10/14/08
[TE] Daniel Wilcox missed last game, "?" - Thigh - 11/16/08
[DT] Dwan Edwards IR - Back - 08/26/08
[CB] Derrick Martin IR - Shoulder - 10/31/08
[RB] Willis McGahee injured last game, "?" - Ankle - 11/17/08
[OT] Willie Anderson missed last game, "?" - Ankle - 11/16/08
[OT] Jared Gaither is "?" - Shoulder - 11/17/08
[OG] Marshal Yanda IR - Knee - 10/14/08
[NT] Kelly Talavou IR. - Shoulder - 08/26/08
[LB] Prescott Burgess IR - Wrist - 08/12/08
[WR] Demetrius Williams IR - Achilles - 10/29/08
[CB] Chris McAlister IR - Knee - 11/07/08
[SS] Dawan Landry IR - Neck - 09/22/08
[TE] Quinn Sypniewski IR - Knee - 07/25/08
[QB] Kyle Boller IR - Shoulder - 09/03/08
[DT] Kelly Gregg IR - Knee - 10/07/08
[WR] Terrence Copper missed last game, "?" - Shoulder - 11/16/08
[RB] P.J. Daniels IR - Shoulder - 08/12/08

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Posted: 12/3/08 9:40 PM ET

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