This is why Shannon Sharpe came to Baltimore after 10 years in Denver.

It's why Rob Burnett came back for his 11th NFL season.It's why Brian Billick came from Minnesota a year ago.

Playoff football became a reality for the Ravens yesterday when they rumbled past the San Diego Chargers, 24-3, in the cold and rain of a December homestretch at PSINet Stadium.

Their fifth straight victory secured the first postseason berth of their Baltimore tenure, and made a lot of career decisions look inspired in hindsight.

"The reason I didn't retire, the reason I came back here, is because of this," said Burnett, who began his career with the Cleveland Browns and figures to finish it here with the Ravens.

"I thought [making a playoff run] was a strong possibility. I felt like I'd be missing out, that I'd be cheated, if I didn't come back because I helped build this thing."

Burnett, 33, helped nail down the playoff spot yesterday with a tap-dance fumble recovery that belied his size (6 feet 4, 270 pounds) and position (defensive end).

The Ravens were protecting a 10-3 lead in the third quarter when Chargers running back Terrell Fletcher scampered around right end from inside his own 15. He had one man to beat for a big play, when safety Kim Herring not only made the tackle, but dislodged the ball as well with a helmet hit to the chest.

When it caromed back toward the goal line, Burnett made a nimble sideline move to retrieve and recover the ball at the 3-yard line.

Two plays later, running back Jamal Lewis made another athletic play, hurdling defensive end Al Fontenot for a 1-yard touchdown run and 17-3 lead. Everything that followed was academic.

The turnover was one of five on the day for the Ravens (10-4), who cashed in 21 points in the exchange. It was significant on a day when the Ravens' offense showed the rust of a bye week and the effects of a steady rain.

Burnett's athleticism did not go unnoticed by his teammates.

"I'm going to call him Fred Astaire," Herring said. "Anybody else would have dove on it, but he picked it up."

The Ravens took turns making Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf look like a first-round bust.

There was linebacker Cornell Brown's magnificent sack-and-strip that preceded a 28-yard touchdown pass from Trent Dilfer to Qadry Ismail in the second quarter.

There was cornerback Chris McAlister's second-quarter interception when Leaf (9-for-23 for 78 yards) overthrew intended receiver Curtis Conway by 10 yards.

There was linebacker Jamie Sharper's first-quarter fumble recovery after Leaf mishandled the center snap from Roman Fortin.

Leaf had no culpability, however, in the fifth turnover. That was purely the work of James Trapp, who alertly knocked blocker DeRon Jenkins into punt returner Nate Jacquet, sending both to the ground on a 27-yard punt by Kyle Richardson to the 13.

The ball hit the prone Jenkins - a former Raven - and was recovered by Brad Jackson. That was the 39th takeaway of the season for the Ravens.