Ravens building momentum for playoff push

OWINGS MILLS – On the verge of stamping their own ticket to the postseason with another victory, the Baltimore Ravens are thinking big. During the afterglow of a 30-24 statement victory over the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said the Ravens want to follow the path of the New York Giants from three years ago.

Of course, those Giants entered the playoffs as the fifth seed before delivering one of the greatest upsets in NFL history by toppling the previously undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

"The 2007 Giants got on a roll, and then they beat an unbeatable team," Suggs said. "We definitely want this momentum going into the playoffs." Despite squandering nine fourth-quarter leads this season, the never dull Ravens (10-4) can clinch a playoff berth for the third consecutive year with a road win over the Cleveland Browns (5-9) on Sunday. With two remaining games, the Ravens are two games ahead of the San Diego Chargers (8-6) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-6) in the wild-card playoff hunt.

And the Ravens are technically tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers atop the AFC North, but trail in the tiebreaker formula for division record because of a loss earlier this season to the Cincinnati Bengals. The New York Jets' win Sunday over the Steelers just made things more interesting for Baltimore. If they win out over the Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals and the Steelers lose to the Browns in their regular-season finale, the Ravens can still win the division.

"What's their chant? J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets? I had a couple of those last night, I guess, in rooting for my friend, Rex Ryan," Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged Monday. "We root for all the teams that play our teams in the division. We're fans of everybody who plays the Steelers, the Browns or the Bengals. I'm sure they like to see the Ravens lose, too. Yeah, we're rooting against them." The Ravens have won four of their past five games and eased growing concerns about their inability to run the football and beat elite quarterbacks against the Saints. Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice gained a career-high 233 all-purpose yards, scoring two touchdowns and rushing for a season-high 153 yards.

And the Ravens managed to hold off Saints star quarterback Drew Brees, improving to 2-12 in the Harbaugh era against Pro Bowl quarterbacks. Now, Harbaugh is looking to become the fourth NFL coach over the past two decades to make the playoffs in his first three years along with Barry Switzer, Dennis Green and Bill Cowher. Push the panic button? The Ravens say they were never worried despite the demoralizing loss to the Steelers and the epic collapse against the Houston Texans and subsequent overtime escape. "Confidence? I'll tell you the only confidence we need is piling on more wins than losses," All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "And that's what we've been talking about all year. Forget what everybody is saying from the outside. Just keep piling up wins and at the end of the day, let's look up and see where we are." Where the Ravens are is this: ideally positioned to make the playoffs.

And their running game has been revitalized just in time for the harsh wintry weather that usually goes well with a physical approach. After months of trying to foster a pass-first approach, the Ravens are back to their old-smash-mouth ways.

They rushed for 208 yards on 39 carries, averaging 5.3 yards against New Orleans. That pound it on the ground mentality prompted the Ravens to only have Joe Flacco throw the football 20 times Sunday, which he did efficiently enough for two touchdowns and no interceptions.

"I've been battling the labels all year, right?" Harbaugh said. "I'm OK with being a rough, tough, physical football team. I think you have to be able to run the ball. I'm OK throwing it 50 times and being physical in pass protection and being physical with catch and run and all that. "But I'm really OK with knocking people off the ball. I think that opens up everything. Running the ball, it probably starts with that. You probably have to run the ball in cold-weather places in the playoffs, in snow and bad fields and all that."

By all accounts, this has been an inspired couple of days for the Ravens. On Saturday night at the team hotel, Lewis addressed the team and delivered what's being characterized as a stirring speech.

"It was more like sacrifice," Rice said. "What are we going to sacrifice now until the rest of the season? We had our bumps and bruises, but what is everybody willing to sacrifice for one goal? The one goal is to win a Super Bowl. "Let's not forget, they were the defending champs; they still are the defending champs until somebody knocks them off. One thing Ray said was: ‘If we're going to run the ball, run it, and let's not stop until they stop it.' I definitely felt that message played a part throughout the whole organization because everybody came to play."

Determined to win another Super Bowl in his 15th NFL season, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year said he simply spoke from the heart. "The question was very simple, ‘What would you give for the man beside you?' That's it," Lewis said. "I remember when I was in my first year, and I went all the way back to that, and now I'm in my 15th. And if they understand this, the young guys that we do have, then they'll appreciate every second, every time we step on that field."

Judging by how the Ravens responded against a Saints team intent on intimidating, it was an effective message.

"I always say at the end of the team meeting on Saturday night after I get done going through the game plan and talking a little bit, you know, ‘Does anybody got anything?' And Saturday night, Ray said, ‘Yeah, I've got something,'" Harbaugh said. "So he stood up and he spoke from the heart, like he always does. He was spot-on, and I think it really resonated with all of us."

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