Ravens in must-win situation in Oakland

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Le'Ron McClain smiled tightly, glanced downward at his battle-scarred knuckles and considered the Baltimore Ravens' outlook heading into today's pressure-packed regular-season finale. For the Pro Bowl fullback and his teammates, there are essentially no playoff scenarios to contemplate.

If they fail to win today against the Oakland Raiders, their season is over. There are no mathematical possibilities where the Ravens can lose this game and still qualify for the playoffs under the NFL tiebreaker formulas.

And a victory over the upset-minded Raiders (5-10) would propel the Ravens (8-7) into the postseason for the second year in a row.

Baltimore could be a dangerous opponent in the playoffs given their penchant for pushing some of the NFL's elite teams to the brink.

"For us, the playoffs start this week," McClain said. "If we don't take care of business, we're going to be packing our bags and saying our goodbyes. That would be one long flight home if we lose, and it would be a fun ride home if we win.

"We can't let the Raiders ruin our season before they hit the road for the offseason. We've got to treat this like a playoff game. This is a must-win for us."

It's virtually unfathomable to think that the Ravens would allow the Raiders to play the spoiler role to the hilt.

They're completely aware that the dysfunctional Raiders are talented, enough so that they have beaten four teams with winning records. That includes upsets of the Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Raiders are also the inconsistent football team that has lost to last-place teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Browns with five of their defeats coming by at least 20 points.

"This is a team that has beaten and can beat anybody in the league," coach John Harbaugh said. "They've done it this year. I look at what they did against Philadelphia, a team that I'm very familiar with, and, of course, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in our division, so that just says it all. We don't have to sit here and throw out any clichés about respect or anything else. It's a proven fact."

There's another set of proven facts that should reassure Ravens fans that have been up in arms ever since Baltimore squandered a prime opportunity to clinch a playoff berth last weekend with a sloppy 23-20 loss to Pittsburgh marked by two touchdowns wiped out due to penalties.

The Ravens are undefeated in four games against teams with losing records this season, including an average margin of victory of 29 points. During Harbaugh's tenure that began last season, the Ravens have yet to fall to a team with a losing record.

"The Raiders don't care who they're playing, they're going to line up and they're going to fight," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "That's what makes them dangerous. They want to spoil our season. That's their mentality. That's why this game is so scary.

"We see what opportunity we have. This team has an opportunity to do something special. We have to get it done by any means necessary."

It was Suggs' costly block-in-the-back infraction that nullified cornerback Domonique Foxworth's interception return for a touchdown last week at Heinz Field. Plus, he dropped a potential interception for a touchdown.

"We could have put this away last week," Suggs said. "I did some things that contributed to hat and some of my teammates that put us in the position where we are right now."

From the Raiders' standpoint, there are no illusions about what they're hoping to accomplish today.

They'd like nothing more than to block the Ravens out of the postseason, and they're hoping to win a sixth game and maintain job security under mercurial owner Al Davis' watch.

"Our goal is to be spoiler this week and come in and put the Ravens out of the playoffs," Raiders star cornerback Nmandi Asomugha told Oakland reporters. "Since we can't get in, we don't want them to get in either."

"You get some joy out of trying to knock them out of the playoffs," Raiders coach Tom Cable said. "That's what this game is about, and that's the way we should approach it."

In the Ravens' locker room this week, there haven't been any conversations about whether they prefer to play the Bengals for a third time or get a rematch against the New England Patriots during the AFC wild-card round.

If the Ravens win and the New York Jets lose to the Bengals, Baltimore moves up to the fifth seed. If the Ravens win and the Jets win, then they get the sixth seed.

During an unpredictable season where they won their first three games before falling into a pattern of inconsistency and penalties, the Ravens aren't taking anything for granted.

As far as they're concerned, the playoffs begin for them today at the Alameda County Coliseum. "It is a playoff game, whether we want to approach it that way or not," Foxworth said. "We win and we continue to play football. We lose and everybody comes home. It really doesn't matter how we approach. It's what it is."

The Ravens seem relaxed, but completely focused on the task at hand: beating the Raiders.

"The beautiful part about it is we control our own destiny," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said.

"We're not worrying about this or worrying about that. We're not overlooking anybody in this league. I don't care who it is. I don't care what their record is or what their situation is.

"This is the NFL and on any given Sunday, anyone can be beaten by a lot. The Raiders are a gifted ballclub and they've shown that in spurts. I'm sure their coaches are telling them, ‘Why not play spoiler?' Our mentality is the same: If they're going to play spoiler, why not take care of our business?"


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