Ravens escape with first-round bye

BALTIMORE -- On the brink of nearly squandering a hard-earned vacation, the Baltimore Ravens escaped with a crucial victory built around a vintage display of defense and a familiar message.

Midway through the third quarter Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium while clinging to a two-point lead over the Buffalo Bills after receiver Lee Evans' deep touchdown catch behind Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle, middle linebacker Ray Lewis had seen enough.
He delivered an emphatic, impromptu pep talk in the defensive huddle, and Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister responded by jumping in front of J.P. Losman's pass intended for Peerless Price and sprinted 31 yards up the left sideline into the end zone.
McAlister's third-quarter touchdown as he raised the football triumphantly into the air put away the Bills for good as Baltimore (13-3) clinched a 19-7 win that assures them of their first-ever first-round bye in the playoffs with their highest seed ever along with the best regular-season record in franchise history.
"Ray came on the field and said, ‘Good teams don't let teams hang around, somebody has to do something, we have to all make a play,'" said McAlister, whose career-high sixth interception gave Baltimore a 16-7 lead with 3:46 remaining in the third quarter. "At that moment, he came out and made a statement: ‘Great teams bury and finish their opponents, and this is our opportunity.'"
Added defensive end Trevor Pryce: "That was the biggest play we've had all year. You find a way to suck the life of them, and we didn't at first. Near the end, Chris' play sucked the life out of them."
Since the third-seeded Indianapolis Colts defeated the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, the Ravens had to have this victory to clinch a first-round bye and hold onto the No. 2 seed in the AFC. The Ravens' prospects of leapfrogging the San Diego Chargers for the top seed were dashed when San Diego dispatched the Arizona Cardinals.
Now, the Ravens will host an AFC divisional playoff either Jan. 13 or Jan. 14 against the highest-seeded remaining winner The AFC playoffs begin this weekend, when No. 6-seeded Kansas City plays at No. 3 Indianapolis on Saturday and No. 5 New York Jets travels to No. 4 New England on Sunday, with the highest-seeded winner advancing to play Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens enter the playoffs on a four-game winning streak with nine wins in their past 10 games. "Fabulous win for us, great way to finish the season," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "They won the first playoff game, that's exactly what this is. It happens to allow us to have a bye. The players are more acutely aware than you can imagine, and they're thrilled to have it."
With the NFL's top-ranked defense allowing just 39 rushing yards while frustrating running back Willis McGahee for 23 yards on 11 carries, kicker Matt Stover delivered four field goals.
He converted from 26, 37, 39 and 29 yards, connecting on his final kick with 4:48 left in the fourth quarter, as Baltimore didn't score a touchdown on offense. The Ravens outgained Buffalo by more than 100 yards in the first half (177-72), but led just 6-0 at halftime as they failed to convert twice in the red zone.
"I'll kick field goals all day long if that's what it comes down to, and I'm happy to do it," Stover said. "It's just putting enough points on the board. We need to put touchdowns on the board, but 19 points was enough to get them."
Added outside linebacker Terrell Suggs: "When you let a team stay around like that, they can ruin your dreams. C-Mac saved us."
The defense seized the day in a manner not unlike how the Ravens claimed their lone Vince Lombardi trophy in the 2000 season.
McAlister scored the Ravens' fifth defensive touchdown of the season, and 10 of Baltimore's points were triggered by defensive turnovers.
"You don't leave a team around like that," Lewis said. "It's a one-score game and anything can happen in that game. If you had to ask me who's the best team in football, we're sitting here right now at 13-3 with the No. 1 defense across the board. So, if anybody wants to come see us in Baltimore, we've got two weeks and we're waiting.
"If you want to come and see us in the playoffs, it's going to be hard. I went the rough way to win the first Super Bowl, so to come back and win and be in the playoffs the way we are now, that's probably the greatest blessing ever. We're just starting to click."
Rolle bit on an inside fake by Evans in the third quarter as he ran right through his attempt to grab him Evans easily corralled Losman's lob inside the 10-yard line to get into the end zone with Rolle trailing behind him.
Evans' eighth touchdown of the season brought the Bills to within two points as they trailed 9-7 with 8:17 remaining in the third quarter.
However, Rolle responded by picking off Losman in the end zone with just over two minutes remaining to seal the win.
"I've been playing long enough to know and I don't let that stuff bother me," Rolle said. "There's no one in the stands that will come down here and take my job, so I don't worry about it. One time I jumped one and he kept going, and you have to pick and choose when you are going to jump it."
It wasn't long in the first half before the Ravens signaled control of the scoreboard. Following a methodical drive that included five receptions for 30 yards to Derrick Mason, one more than he had caught in the previous two weeks combined, Stover kicked his first field goal of the game from 26 yards out to stake Baltimore to a 3-0 advantage.
The Ravens reached the Bills' 10-yard line, but a 2-yard pass to Mason on 3rd-and-4 ended any hopes of a touchdown as Billick sent the field-goal unit into the game.
Although Steve McNair tossed an interception to diving middle linebacker London Fletcher on the Ravens' ensuing drive while looking for Mason, the Bills did absolutely nothing with it.
They went three-and-out, gaining no yards on two Losman incompletions and Kelly Gregg stuffing McGahee for no yards as punter Brian Moorman had to kick it for the second time in the first quarter.
McNair completed 9 of his first 11 passes for 67 yards, eclipsing the 30,000 passing yardage mark with an 8-yard pass to Mason on the Ravens' initial drive. He became the third quarterback to reach the 30,000 milestone while also rushing for 3,500 yards, joining Hall of Fame selections Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young.
Although McNair completed 23 of 35 passes for 216 yards, he threw one interception with no touchdowns while directing a conservative, efficient attack that controlled time of possession for 36 minutes and 21 seconds.
Now, the Ravens can regroup as they won't return to practice until Saturday. The Ravens played Sunday without two starting offensive linemen, sitting out left tackle Jonathan Ogden (hyperextended toe) and right guard Keydrick Vincent (groin).
"We know what it takes and we know all about hostile environments," McNair said. "Everything will pick up a notch in the playoffs because it's a one-game season. Intensity rises."
History suggests that being the second seed could provide a significant boost to the Ravens' postseason outlook. 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. "It's sweet, man," running back Jamal Lewis said of being at home in the postseason. "We're going to rest up and get ready to come back, and it's just two games to the Super Bowl."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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