Playoff-ready

Ravens are No. 6 team in AFC playoffs, but seeds of hope have been planted

December 30, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

There were 15 straight weeks without a bye.

There were three consecutive games on the road.

And there were the rumors that the Ravens were hand-picked to be the final opponent at Texas Stadium.

So when the Ravens look at the challenge ahead as the AFC's sixth seed - every playoff game would be played on the road - they just shrug their shoulders.

"Our team is prepared for anything right now," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Our team feels very confident in any kind of circumstance or situation. Our guys will be ready for it."

The Ravens, who are three-point favorites for Sunday's game at Miami, will be battling history along with the Dolphins.

Since the expansion to 12 playoff teams in 1990, only one No. 6 seed (the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2005 season) has won the Super Bowl. In fact, the Steelers are the only final seed in either conference to advance past the second round.

Of the 36 teams that entered the postseason as No. 6 seeds, 25 have been knocked out in the opening round, a failure rate of 69 percent.

But with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback, the Ravens have already beaten the odds by reaching the playoffs.

"I think guys realize this is a team of resilience," fullback Lorenzo Neal said. "If we can play together and believe in each other, I feel this year can be very special."

Here are five reasons the Ravens could succeed as the sixth seed:

1. Joe Flacco plays better on the road. : Even though he passed for a season-high 297 yards at home Sunday, Flacco has been more consistent away from M&T Bank Stadium. His passer rating on the road (91.7) is among the tops in the NFL, which is the opposite of what you would expect of a rookie quarterback.

Flacco has thrown a touchdown pass in seven of eight road games, averaging 211.4 passing yards. Incidentally, Miami has the NFL's 25th-ranked pass defense.

2. No fear of other teams. : If the top seeds win out, the Ravens' playoff road would go through Miami, Tennessee and Pittsburgh. That's not an impossible journey. The Ravens have already beaten the Dolphins in South Florida. And though they did go 0-3 against the Titans and Pittsburgh, they lost every time on one of the last drives of the game.

The only team the Ravens would probably want to avoid is the Indianapolis Colts, who seem to have the Ravens' defense figured out. But there's a sense that the Ravens would want another shot at taking down Tennessee and Pittsburgh.

3. Defense is the great equalizer. : One of the reasons the 2005 Steelers beat the odds on the road was their defense. Ranked fourth in the regular season that season, Pittsburgh's defense held quarterbacks Jon Kitna, Peyton Manning and Jake Plummer to fewer than 20 points each game.

Great defenses can level the playing field. The Ravens' defense, which finished ranked No. 2, has that same ability. In eight road games, the Ravens allowed 15 offensive touchdowns while forcing 12 turnovers.

4. No dominant home-field advantage. : The Dolphins, Titans and Steelers have a combined home record of 18-6 - which is their same record on the road. Miami actually has a better mark on the road (6-2) than at Dolphin Stadium (5-3), where selling out games has been a challenge.

Tennessee is 7-1 at LP Field, but that can be deceptive. In the final two months of the season, the Titans lost to the New York Jets and needed overtime to beat the Green Bay Packers. The same goes for Pittsburgh, which is 2-2 against this year's playoff teams at Heinz Field.

5. Not your typical sixth seed. : An argument could be made that the Ravens are the hottest AFC team entering the playoffs. Although the Colts have reeled off nine straight victories, the Ravens have won five of their past six games, outscoring teams 163-64.

In the final stretch, the Ravens came through in pressure games at Dallas and against the Jacksonville Jaguars and came within inches of beating Pittsburgh. Sometimes the playoffs are determined more by momentum than seedings.

RAVENS (11-5) @DOLPHINS (11-5)

AFC wild card

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Ravens by 3

the history of the no. 6 seed

The past five playoff seasons for the sixth seeds:

Yr. Team Rec. Result

'03 Denver 0-1 Lost to Ind., 41-10, in WC

Dallas 0-1 Lost to Car., 29-10, in WC

'04 Denver 0-1 Lost to Ind., 49-24, in WC

Minnesota 1-1 Lost to Phil., 27-14, in DP

'05 Pittsburgh 4-0 Beat Sea., 21-10, in SB

Washington 1-1 Lost to Sea., 20-10, in DP

'06 Kansas City 0-1 Lost to Ind., 23-8, in WC

N.Y. Giants 0-1 Lost to Phil., 23-20, in WC

'07 Tennessee 0-1 Lost to S.D., 17-6, in WC

Washington 0-1 Lost to Sea., 35-14, in WC

WC - Wild-card round; DP - Divisional round;

SB - Super Bowl

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