Ravens: Super Bowl or bust

OWINGS MILLS -- Unlike previous incarnations of the Baltimore Ravens, there haven't been any edicts banning playoff conversations or even holding court about the largest prize the NFL has to offer.

Inside the lobby of the Ravens' training complex, they have two prominently-placed trophy cases underneath a gigantic framed portrait of former owner Art Modell. There's one that usually holds the team's Vince Lombardi trophy for winning Super Bowl XXXV, and there's an empty, lit spot with room for another.

With the Ravens (12-3) on the verge of securing a first-round bye and hosting a playoff game in Baltimore in the second round of the postseason, no ceiling has been placed on the team's outlook.

"Once we crossed through that threshold and became a playoff team, there's only one reason to go to the playoffs and that's to get to the Super Bowl," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "You're not going to have anybody just happy to be there. We've earned that right to think in those terms. Our focus is Buffalo but we're at that point in the season where the Super Bowl is why you're in this thing."

The Ravens have already clinched the AFC North title and have won eight of their past nine games, including a 31-7 rout of the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field. They can clinch nothing lower than the AFC's No. 2 seed by defeating the Buffalo Bills (7-8) during Sunday's regular-season finale at M&T Bank Stadium.

There is still one scenario where the Ravens could emerge as the top seed in the AFC and earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They need to defeat the Bills at home, where they're 6-1 this year and have been installed as nine-point favorites. Plus, they need the San Diego Chargers (13-2) to cooperate by losing to the Arizona Cardinals, a long-shot proposition that became even more unlikely since Arizona will be without injured rookie quarterback Matt Leinart.

If that upset transpires, the Ravens and Chargers would have identical records. Plus, the Ravens own the head-to-head tiebreaker since they defeated San Diego on Oct. 1 in Baltimore. Even if both teams win, the Ravens would hold onto the No. 2 seed for their highest playoff position.

However if Baltimore loses and the Indianapolis Colts defeat the Miami Dolphins, the Ravens would slip back to the third seed and squander their first-round bye and host a playoff game one week after playing Buffalo. The Colts hold a tiebreaker edge over Baltimore because of a superior record against common opponents.

"It's so clear and clean-cut for us right now, it's very easy to bring the focus at the task at hand," Billick said. "It removes any of the questions about how long do you play your starters and how much do you invest in this. There's no question in my mind that the players understand this better than you or me or the fans about what the ramifications of this game are and what that bye would mean going into next week."

If the Ravens earn a first-round bye, a team spokesman said that Billick has decided to give players all of next week off before returning to work Saturday.

History suggests that being a second seed could provide a significant boost to the Ravens' prospects. Since the NFL adopted a 12-team playoff format in 1990, the top two seeds have gone 51-13 in the divisional-round game. Four of the past five Super Bowl champions have either been seeded first or second.

Since their 2000 Super Bowl season, the Ravens are tied with the Denver Broncos for the NFL's best home record with a 41-14 mark.

"That could be very dangerous," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said regarding playoff games in Baltimore. "The worst Baltimore Ravens team to play is when we're at home."

Following last year's 6-10 campaign that marks the Ravens' worst record under Billick, one that endangered his job security before owner Steve Bisciotti retained him under a change-or-go mandate, Baltimore has undergone a dramatic facelift to rival several Hollywood starlets. The Ravens have improved markedly on offense, climbing to 17th in total offense after ranking 29th under former offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, whom Billick fired after losing consecutive games this fall following a 4-2 start and assumed play-calling duties.

Meanwhile, the NFL's top-ranked defense leads the league by allowing 264.8 yards per game and 12.9 points per contest.

A team that didn't win a game on the road last year and entered this season with the longest active road losing streak in the league has gone 6-2 on the road with wins at the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs along with its first win in Pittsburgh since 2001.

"In a sense that the lessons you learn and can only learn maybe going through something like that, what those specific lessons are, I wouldn't elaborate on. "Some of the things that left us vulnerable last year I think probably have a direct bearing on the way we've handled them better this year."

Although Billick didn't want to get into specifics of what last season has meant to this season, he wasn't shy in his opinion when asked whether his team has hit its peak.

"I hope not, I think this team really believes we've got our best football ahead of us," Billick said. "They're excited by that."

While not distancing themselves from the dominant 2000 edition, the Ravens have become somewhat reluctant to compare themselves to that gold standard and are succeeding at creating a separate identity. They can break the 2000 team's record for most victories in the regular season with one more win.

"There's a certain heritage there that we hold onto, being a former Super Bowl team and, on the defensive side, the legacy that team created," Billick said. "But we are so different a team than that in personality, structure, athleticism, across the board. Those that were a part of that before hold onto that a little bit, but it's a different experience."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland

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