By Larry Lage, AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) – The reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens are playing significant games in December as usual, surging toward a sixth straight postseason berth.
The slumping Detroit Lions, meanwhile, are trying to avoid a late-season collapse that would keep them out of the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 years.
Baltimore (7-6) has won a season-high three straight at home, but likely has to figure out a way to win on the road to have a shot to defend its title. The Ravens have lost three straight road games and their only win in six chances as a visitor this year was at Miami more than two months ago.
“It’s going to be critical, we’ve got two of the next three on the road,” coach John Harbaugh said. “These games are going to count for really making the difference.”
Detroit (7-6) has lost three of four, blowing fourth-quarter leads in each setback, to fall into a first-place tie with the Chicago Bears. That has given Green Bay an opportunity to contend for the NFC North championship. The Lions haven’t won a division title since 1993.
“For us, the playoffs start now,” Detroit running back Reggie Bush said. “Every game, it’s kind of win or go home.”
Here are five things to watch when the Ravens play the Lions on Monday night:
GOING DEEP: The Ravens have gone to the air a lot this season, unable to rely on Ray Rice and the running game as they have in the past. Rice is averaging just 3 yards a carry for a total of 549 yards. He gained 4-plus yards per rushing attempt in each of his first five seasons and finished with at least 1,143 yards rushing in each of the previous four years.
Torrey Smith has taken advantage, ranking among NFL leaders with 11 receptions of at least 25 yards, and is approaching his first season with 1,000 yards receiving. Joe Flacco, though, has paid a heavy price by getting sacked a career-high 41 times, a total that trails only Miami’s Ryan Tannehill. “We’re going to have to play over the top,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “Torrey Smith is a really good wide receiver when it comes to that and Flacco has enough arm to be able to put it anywhere on the field.”
FAST TRACK: Detroit is looking forward to competing without weather being a factor for at least its next three games, hosting Baltimore and the New York Giants and playing at Minnesota. The Lions lost while playing in several inches of snow at Philadelphia last week, and last month on a soggy surface at Pittsburgh. “We have really a distinct advantage when we have great footing,” Lions receiver Nate Burleson said. “You’ll see us fly around quite a bit.”
HEAR ME ROAR: Detroit hopes home field is as much of an advantage as it was the last time they were at home on a Monday night. The Lions beat Chicago two years ago in the weekly showcase game in part because their roaring fans led to the Bears having six false starts in the first half and finishing with nine.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t sound the least bit worried about fans making so much noise it rattles his offense, saying it has prepared for the commotion. “We always practice with crowd noise of some sort,” Flacco said.
Perhaps that hasn’t helped the Ravens so far this season because they have been called for false starts 22 times, tied for the most in the NFL, according to STATS.
PIVOTAL PASSES: Flacco has thrown a career-high 17 interceptions, five more than he had in any of his first five seasons. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford threw four interceptions in his first six games, helping Detroit start strong with a 4-2 record. He has been picked off 10 times since, including seven times during his last four-game stretch in which Detroit has overcome his mistakes well enough to win only one game.
SPECIAL SPECIALISTS: The Monday night matchup might be decided on special teams because both teams have a playmaking returner. Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones had a 77-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in last week’s win against Minnesota, his fourth score on special teams since 2012. Detroit’s Jeremy Ross returned a kickoff 98 yards and a punt 58 yards in last week’s loss to the Eagles, joining Eddie Payton as the two players that have pulled off the feat in franchise history. Ross is the 14th in NFL history to score both ways in one game.
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