Ravens hit postseason on a hot streak

BALTIMORE -- Just in case anyone had any lingering doubts about their rediscovered legitimacy, the Baltimore Ravens stamped their own ticket for the playoffs in dominant fashion. Engineering a dramatic turnaround from last season's epic collapse, the Ravens flexed their muscles against the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars during a 27-7 victory Sunday before 71,366 at M&T Bank Stadium.

The triumph propels Baltimore (11-5) into an AFC wild-card playoff game next Sunday at 1 p.m. against the AFC East champion Miami Dolphins, and it confirms the Ravens' belief that this would be an extremely respectable season after last year's 5-11 campaign.

The Ravens enter the postseason on a roll, having won nine of their past 11 games.

"This team started something way back in training camp, and we kind of knew how special this team could be," said star middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who alertly recovered two fumbles. "For us to be right now where we are, we expected to be here. We didn't worry about expectations outside of our locker room. We knew what we had inside of our locker room."

It was an absolute must-win situation for Baltimore by virtue of the New England Patriots' 13-0 victory over the Buffalo Bills in an earlier game. The Ravens knew by kickoff that they definitely had to stave off the Jaguars (5-11) to be assured of the sixth and final playoff berth in the AFC.

Meanwhile, the Ravens' win blocks the Patriots from making the postseason despite an 11-5 mark.

"Screw the Patriots," linebacker Bart Scott said.

"What better win than to send the Patriots packing?" linebacker Terrell Suggs said.

Instead of folding under the heavy pressure, the Ravens thrived.

Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco gave a commanding performance in completing 17 of 23 passes for a season-high 297 yards and no interceptions for a 115.8 passer rating, and free safety Ed Reed was his usual instinctive self with two athletic interceptions.

"We have mighty men, we have a strong bunch of guys," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They're resilient. They're tough and rough."

The Ravens' mentality was simple: Leave no doubt about the outcome of this game.

And they didn't, improving to 7-0 against teams with a losing record for the season.

"This wasn't just finishing up the season or a game that was going to get us into the playoffs, this was a playoff game," center Jason Brown said. "That level of intensity, we had to come out full steam ahead. We're not holding back any of our weapons, we're not going to try and keep anybody fresh. We're coming out and giving everything."

After falling behind 7-3 when running back Alvin Pearman caught a 23-yard touchdown pass out of the backfield when Lewis collided with a tight end and couldn't' t get over in coverage to defend, the Ravens put the game away by relying on Flacco's powerful right arm. The Ravens responded immediately on their subsequent 78-yard drive as Flacco completed 6 of 7 passes for 69 yards to set up Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain bulling in for a touchdown from five yards out to retake the lead.

Then, Flacco completed all three of his passes on the Ravens' next possession as they marched 77 yards for a 17-7 lead built on running back Willis McGahee's 13-yard touchdown run. Flacco found Derrick Mason twice for 57 yards on the drive and connected with Mark Clayton for eight yards to convert a key 3rd-and-7. Reed's interception, which he lateraled to defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, set up Flacco completing three more passes, including a 47-yard rainbow spiral to Clayton (128 receiving yards). On the next play, McClain busted into the end zone from one yard out for his 10th rushing touchdown of the season.

McClain rushed for 70 yards and finished the season with a career-high 902 yards after carrying the football just eight times last year as a rookie.

Flacco's accuracy and confidence were on full display as the Ravens took control of the game, continuing his dramatic progression since being installed as the starter by default last summer when Troy Smith suffered a severe tonsil infection and Kyle Boller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

"That's just how Joe is, he's been that way all season," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "If we had dumbed down our offense at the beginning of the season, we wouldn't be as good.

"Cam Cameron told him the night before the Miami game that we're not going to treat you like a rookie, your rookie season is over and we're not going to dumb our offense down. Week in and week out, Joe was able to handle that and the better we got as a group."

During those three decisive drives, Flacco completed 12 of 13 passes.

"We had guys breaking wide open down the field," Flacco said. "They weren't just little passes, they were pretty big chunks and we had a couple of guys make a couple of nice catches. Anytime you're seeing guys make plays like that, it's a lot of fun to be back there and throwing the ball to them."

Leading 24-7 at halftime, the Ravens never looked back as they forced four turnovers and held the Jaguars to their lowest point total of the year.

"We have an opportunity to prove we're the best team in the NFL," Harbaugh said. "That's what we're going to try to do."

Harbaugh accurately prognosticated that the Patriots would win while Flacco predicted that the Jaguars would compete hard for the first quarter, and that forecast proved true as well. The Ravens led 3-0 on a 32-yard Matt Stover field goal following Flacco's long pass to Clayton, but Stover misfired wide and to the left on a 48-yard try after cornerback Frank Walker forced a fumble that Lewis pounced on.

Stover contributed a 41-yard field goal in the third quarter to cap the scoring. Then, Reed intercepted his NFL-high ninth pass in the final minutes to tie his own franchise record.

Having won at least 11 games for the third time after winning a dozen during their Super Bowl season in 2000 and setting a franchise record with a 13-3 campaign two seasons ago, the Ravens are now poised to compete with the Dolphins in the opening round.

"We're got as good a chance as anybody of winning the whole thing," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said.

Despite a shaky preseason where large question marks loomed about the quarterback situation, the capabilities of a young offensive line and whether several older players could recover from serious injuries, the Ravens overcame having a league-high 18 players placed on injured reserve and having their midseason bye moved to Week 2 when Hurricane Ike caused their game against the Houston Texans to be postponed.

"We challenged ourselves at the beginning of the season," Anderson said. "Didn't have a bye week, playing with a rookie quarterback, first-year head coach, we all bought into the brotherhood of fighting.

"Everything was against us. No bye week. The world was saying we were done after that three-game losing streak when we got smashed by Indy. I think the turning point was Miami."

Why were the Ravens able to win this season after losing a franchise-record nine games in row last year in a downward spiral that cost former coach Brian Billick his job after nine seasons and a Super Bowl victory?

"Probably just the attitude, we have a new leader," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "He's humble. He treats everybody with respect. You have no choice but to play hard for a coach like that."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

BALTIMORE RAVENS' REPORT CARD

Quarterback: A-minus

Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was masterful, taking charge of the offense and delivered some crisp throws to complete 17 of 23 passes for 297 yards and no interceptions for a 115.8 passer rating. He enters the playoffs on a hot streak. Backup quarterback Troy Smith caught a 36-yard pass on a throwback pass from Flacco, and completed a 25-yard pass to reserve tight end Edgar Jones.

Running back: B-minus

Fullback Le'Ron McClain bashed ahead for 70 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, finishing the season with 902 yards and 10 touchdowns. Willis McGahee chipped in with a touchdown run up the middle, and rookie Jalen Parmale rushed for 27 yards on his first two NFL carries.

Receiver: B-plus

Mark Clayton made several acrobatic grabs for four receptions and 128 yards, including a 48-yard gain, while Derrick Mason played through the pain of a dislocated left shoulder to catch six passes for 77 yards.

Offensive line: B

Joe Flacco was only sacked twice. Plus, they opened some gaping holes up the middle in the red zone for three touchdown runs. Overall, it was a solid game against a good front seven.

Defensive line: B-minus

They helped contain dangerous running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who gained 78 yards on 23 carries. David Garrard was sacked once, but pressured and hit often as he passed for just 127 yards on 14 of 25 accuracy and a 49.9 passer rating.

Linebacker: B-plus

In what could have potentially been his final game in Baltimore since his contract expires after this season, middle linebacker Ray Lewis recovered two fumbles, forcing one and led the defense with eight tackles. Terrell Suggs had two tackles for losses and one fumble recovery. Bart Scott had fivce tackles, one for a loss, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble.

Secondary: A-minus

Free safety Ed Reed's instincts were on full display again, intercepting David Garrard twice and forcing a fumble. He finished the regular season with nine interceptions. Frank Walker started in place of an injured Fabian Washington and had six tackles, two pass deflections and one forced fumble. Jim Leonhard missed some tackles in the open field.

Special teams: C

Matt Stover missed a 48-yard field goal, but hit kicks from 32 and 41 yards. Punter Sam Koch averaged just 38.3 yards on four punts. Jim Leonhard had a fair catch on one punt return, and rookie safety Tom Zbikowski stepped in for Yamon Figurs and returned two kickoffs for a 24.0 average.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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