Ravens' monthly mantra: just win

Momentum in Dec. gives big playoff push

December 12, 2006|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun Reporter

Proving how complicated December can be in the NFL, one only has to look at the Ravens' predicament this week.

Are the Ravens rooting for the Indianapolis Colts to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in order to wrap up the AFC North? Or are the Ravens hoping the Bengals knock off the Colts because it helps their cause for grabbing a top-two seed in the playoffs?

Rather than attempt to clarify the playoff picture, the Ravens have a more simple formula: Just win their last three games.

From experience, the Ravens know that it's the hottest teams - not the highest-seeded ones - that usually win the Super Bowl.

"Beyond the circumstances of what any win means - home field through the playoffs, the bye and all the other things - you've got to have a certain momentum going into the playoffs," coach Brian Billick said a day after a pivotal, 20-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. "I'm supremely confident that this team knows what it has to do over the next three weeks."

Momentum has proven to be more valuable than a No. 1 seed since the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in January 2001.

It was that year that the fourth-seeded Ravens parlayed a season-ending, seven-game winning streak into the team's only Super Bowl championship. Last season, the sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers turned their season around by winning their last four games, which they used to springboard them to a fifth NFL title.

Of the past six Super Bowl champions, only one (the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers) lost twice in its last five games.

"You always want to play your best football in December," linebacker Bart Scott said. "They don't hand out too many trophies in the first half of the year. If they did, Denver would be world champs."

Winners of six of their past seven games, the Ravens (10-3) are closing in on their first playoff berth since 2003, only needing to beat the Cleveland Browns on Sunday to clinch a spot. The Ravens would capture the second division title in team history if they win and the Bengals lose.

But the Ravens have not hidden the fact that they have higher aspirations.

The Ravens are tied with Indianapolis (10-3) for the second-best record in the AFC and need the struggling Colts to lose another game to secure the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. At this point, the Colts hold an edge in tiebreakers (common opponents and strength of victory) over the Ravens.

There's also a chance that the Ravens could claim the AFC's top seed because they trail the San Diego Chargers (11-2) by one game. If the teams finish tied, the Ravens would win the tiebreaker as a result of their 16-13 victory over the Chargers on Oct. 1.

The biggest incentive for being the top seed is having home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

"I would love nothing more than to have a championship game here in the city of Baltimore," Billick said. "I would enjoy that, the fans would enjoy that and so would the organization. And that's as real and as huge for the players."

Of the top three teams in the AFC, the Ravens have the easiest remaining road.

The Chargers have home games against Kansas City (7-6) and Arizona (4-9) in addition to a road game at Seattle (8-5). The Colts face the Bengals (8-5) and suddenly hot Miami Dolphins (6-7) at home and play at Houston (4-9).

Unlike those teams, the Ravens only play teams with losing records the rest of the way: home against Cleveland (4-9) and Buffalo (6-7) and at Pittsburgh (6-7).

"This team will not overlook an opponent," Billick said. "I will promise you that if we don't play well against the Cleveland Browns, it will not be because we think we can just walk out on Sunday and beat somebody."

The Ravens have had few letdowns on either side of the ball recently.

In their past four games, quarterback Steve McNair has completed over 70 percent of his passes three times and running back Jamal Lewis has scored five touchdowns.

Over that span, the Ravens' defense has given up 33 points (an average of 8.3 per game) and three touchdowns.

"We haven't played our best football yet, but we're moving in the right direction," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "When the offense is giving us leads like that and our defense can pin their ears back, that's championship football."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

In command

The three hottest teams in the NFL since November are all in the AFC:

........................................ ........................................................... Avg. margin

Team ........................................... Since Nov. ......................... of victory

San Diego ........................................... 6-0 .........................................10.1

Ravens ................................................ 5-1 ........................................ 11.6

Miami ................................................... 5-1 ....................................... 12.6

This week's playoff scenarios

Ravens can clinch AFC North title with:

1) A win and a Cincinnati loss or tie.

2) A tie and a Cincinnati loss.

Ravens can clinch playoff berth with:

1) A win or tie.

2) A Cincinnati loss or tie and Ravens clinch strength-of-victory tiebreaker over N.Y. Jets.

3) A Denver loss or tie and Ravens clinch strength-of-victory tiebreaker over N.Y. Jets.

4) N.Y. Jets and Cincinnati lose or tie.

5) N.Y. Jets and Denver lose or tie.

6) New England and Jacksonville lose and Cincinnati loses or ties.

7) New England and Jacksonville lose and Denver loses or ties.

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