Ravens stiff-arm Raiders on route to playoffs

OAKLAND, Calif. –- Behind a powerful stiff-arm delivered by running back Willis McGahee and the instincts of rookie linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, the Baltimore Ravens had just enough resolve to hurdle their final remaining road block standing between them and the playoffs.

McGahee's emphatic left arm sent Oakland Raiders free safety Hiram Eugene flailing to the ground before the veteran runner accelerated up the sideline into the end zone for a 77-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

McGahee rushed for a season-high 167 yards and three touchdowns during a 21-13 victory Sunday as Ellerbe contributed a clutch interception and a fumble recovery in the second half to propel the Ravens into the playoffs for the second year in a row.

Triumphing in a must-win situation before 38,400 at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum sets up a rematch between the Ravens (9-7) and the New England Patriots (10-6) in an AFC wild-card game next Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

"It's not easy to make the playoffs in the National Football League, and it's been a tough road," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We've suffered our share of disappointments, but congratulations to our players and coaches who made it happen under really difficult circumstances.

"Everything that you go through in football and life makes you who you are and who you become if you handle it the right way. We are looking forward to the fact that we are playing next week. We are going to be a very formidable opponent, there is no doubt about that."

McGahee's second touchdown run was the Ravens' signature moment Sunday, capping a regular season defined by close losses, lots of penalties and a few squandered opportunities.

The former Pro Bowl runner busted through the line of scrimmage up the right sideline before faking Eugene off-balance and grabbing the defensive back by the shoulder pad and pounding him into the ground.

"I don't know if it was a stiff-arm or a beat-down," Harbaugh said. "That was a physical play, as physical a play as you're ever going to see."

McGahee had just enough energy left over to make it the remaining 55 yards, diving over the goal line.

"I wasn't expecting it to work that well," said McGahee, who was replaced as the featured running back this season by Pro Bowl runner Ray Rice. "I was shocked just like everybody else was shocked. I knew I was going to stiff-arm him, but I didn't know he was going to fall backwards. There was no looking back."

The Ravens overcame their share of struggles, especially Flacco who was sacked four times and passed for a season-low 102 yards.

So, they relied on a strong running game and a stout defense to get the job done.

The Ravens rushed for 240 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries for their second-highest total of the season behind their 308-yard output in a 48-3 win over the Detroit Lions last month. Defensively, they stonewalled the Raiders. Oakland was limited to 51 rushing yards, an average of 2.6 yards per carry.

"With that type of formula, that's how you win playoff games: with defense and an aggressive running game," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "You win a lot of games in the playoffs like that.

"We knew we had to win by any means necessary to give ourselves a shot at redemption. Now we're in the playoffs and anything can happen."

As predicted by many, the upset-minded Raiders (5-11) made a serious bid to spoil the Ravens' season by preventing them from making it to the postseason.

The Raiders closed the gap to 14-13 late in the third quarter on Sebastian Janikowski's 39-yard field goal.

An accurate Charlie Frye was slicing up the Ravens' secondary on 18 of 25 passing for 180 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions before a back injury forced him out of the game.

Ellerbe read a telegraphed Russell pass intended for tight end Zach Miller in the final seconds of the third quarter, stepping in front of the errant throw and returning the interception down to the Raiders' 28-yard line.

"Late in the season you need unsung heroes to make plays like that," Suggs said.

That set the stage for McGahee's final touchdown run, a two-yard score behind offensive guard Ben Grubbs' bruising block to put the game away.

When outside linebacker Antwan Barnes stripped the football away from an unsuspecting Russell in the fourth quarter, Ellerbe pounced on the fumble to halt a potential Oakland scoring drive.

"For Dannell to come up with two turnovers, a rookie linebacker, which was the difference in the football game, is amazing," Harbaugh said.

"He works very hard. He's a very smart football player, and he's in the right place twice."

McGahee's 36-yard run to convert a third-and-four from his own 15-yard line allowed the Ravens to run out the clock with quarterback Joe Flacco kneeling three times.

McGahee served notice that he was going to be a factor on the Ravens' second drive as he was untouched on his two-yard touchdown run behind the blocks of Grubbs, fullback Le'Ron McClain and center Matt Birk.

"The blocking was outstanding," McGahee said. "I actually thought the holes were too good to be true. I was looking for a flag because it was unbelievable out there."

The Raiders made it interesting, though. Miller got behind middle linebacker Ray Lewis for a 12-yard touchdown catch in the final minute of the first half.

With Lewis excelling against run with a dozen tackles, it was left to youngsters like Barnes and Ellerbe to make the big plays.

"It gets no better," Lewis said. "It's like me sitting there watching my kids. They make a play and then they come to me and say some of the most incredible things.

"That is really what creates brotherhoods. When they make a play, I'm just so happy for them."

Following another bad snap from Matt Katula, who has been dealing with forearm, wrist and elbow problems, kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 37-yard field goal wide right on the final play of the half with Baltimore leading just 14-10.

An awful third quarter offensively compounded the issue.

The Ravens were held scoreless by going three-and-out on all three possessions while netting zero yards.

Flacco was under constant duress.

Nonetheless, the Ravens were resilient enough and mustered enough willpower to not be upset by an inferior football team.

Afterward, the Ravens' locker room was relatively subdued.

"It feels a little different, I guess," said Flacco, who became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to win two playoff games last season as Baltimore made it to the AFC championship game before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers. "We're ready to go and I'm ready to go out there next week and get a win. Last year, it was cool, win and get in the playoffs.

"We have a main goal and that's the Super Bowl. We feel that we have a good team. We think it's going to be tough to beat us come playoff time."

Another bright spot for the Ravens was getting offensive tackle Jared Gaither and free safety Ed Reed from foot and groin injuries, respectively, with neither player aggravating their ailments.

Now, they get their second shot at the Patriots after falling, 27-21, earlier this season in Foxborough, Mass., as wide receiver Mark Clayton dropped a key pass on fourth down.

"It's going to be a dogfight," cornerback Chris Carr said. "After that first game, they know they're going to have to play a lot better to beat us this time. Hey, we'll see what happens."

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