Relying on a familiar formula, the Ravens marched into uncharted playoff territory yesterday:
A No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the postseason.
The Ravens captured the highest playoff seeding in team history, using a ball-control offense and a ball-hawking defense to beat the Buffalo Bills, 19-7, at a damp M&T Bank Stadium.
The offense did its part to control the clock for 36 minutes, 21 seconds (compared to the Bills' 23:39), but it was the defense that provided the touchdown, when cornerback Chris McAlister returned an interception 31 yards for a score late in the third quarter.
In setting the team record for wins in the regular season, the Ravens (13-3) were given the week off and will return well-rested to host a second-round game on Jan. 13 or 14.
"They won their first playoff game [today], that's exactly what this is," coach Brian Billick said. "It happens to allow us to have a bye. The players are more acutely aware of that than you could imagine, and they're thrilled to have it."
The AFC playoffs begin this weekend, when No. 6-seeded Kansas City plays at No. 3 Indianapolis on Saturday and No. 5 New York Jets travels to No. 4 New England on Sunday.
The highest remaining seed advances to face the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, where they are an NFL-best 42-14 since 2000. If both home teams win - New England and Indianapolis - the Colts would return to Baltimore for a playoff game for the first time since relocating to Indianapolis in 1984.
The Ravens had a chance to become the AFC's top seed and clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if the San Diego Chargers had lost.
But by the time quarterback Steve McNair was taking a knee to run out the final minute, the Ravens had learned the Chargers had beaten the Arizona Cardinals, 27-20.
That news hardly affected the celebration in the Ravens' locker room or their prospects for the future. In the Ravens' minds, they're the second seed but are second to no one.
"If you had to ask me who's the best team in football, we're sitting right now at 13-3 with the No. 1 defense," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "If anybody wants to see us in Baltimore, they've got two weeks."
Lewis became the catalyst for the Ravens putting away the Bills (7-9) and preserving the second seed.
After cornerback Samari Rolle got burned for a 44-yard touchdown in the third quarter - trimming the Ravens' lead to 9-7 - Lewis told his defensive teammates that, "Great teams bury and finish their opponents, and this is our opportunity."
Moments later, the Ravens sent Lewis and Terrell Suggs side by side off the edge, and Bills quarterback J.P. Losman threw into the teeth of the blitz. McAlister jumped the quick route in front of Peerless Price, picked off the errant pass and ran it back 31 yards for the touchdown, holding the ball high as he glided into the end zone.
McAlister's career-high sixth interception put the Ravens ahead, 16-7, with 3:46 left in the third quarter.
"That might be the biggest play all season," defensive end Trevor Pryce said.
The Ravens' offense failed to reach the end zone, but it frequently got to the red zone.
The Ravens put together drives of 13, 11, 13, eight and nine plays. The NFL leader in time of possession, the Ravens dominated the clock for 11:49 in the first quarter and 10:50 in the fourth quarter.
"We do a lot during the course of the game to wear a defense down," said McNair, who was 23-for-35 for 216 yards and an interception. "It kind of frustrates them."
But the Ravens offense shared in that frustration. The Ravens reached the red zone four times and had to settle for Matt Stover field goals of 26, 37, 39 and 29 yards.
"Our defense helped us out a ton tonight. It definitely wasn't pretty offensively," tight end Todd Heap said. "We're going to have to fix a lot of those things going into next week. We won't lose confidence over a game like that."
Much of the wounds were self-inflicted.
Two drives in the red zone were stalled by third-down penalties. Rookie right guard Chris Chester, who replaced injured Keydrick Vincent (groin), was called for being an ineligible man downfield on a screen pass, and Heap was flagged for a false start.
It marked the first time since Billick took over the play-calling duties 10 games ago that the offense failed to score a touchdown.
"We killed ourselves in a lot of different areas," McNair said.
"Now we know we can survive and should the need arise [again] we can rely on those guys," Billick said.
Defensively, it was status quo for a Ravens defense that has allowed only one team to score more than one touchdown in the past seven weeks.
The Ravens gave up 253 yards, 10 first downs and only one drive into the red zone. But it wasn't until they scored their sixth defensive touchdown of the season that they sealed their ninth win in 10 games.
"Coming into the game the bye was something at the top of our agenda, to come in and get the victory just so we can have that week off," McAlister said. "A lot of people can really use it. We can rest up a couple of injuries in guys we have that didn't suit up today."
Billick, though, wants his players to reflect as much as rest during this coveted bye week.
"13-3 is not easy to do," Billick said. "I hope the guys will dwell on that a little bit. We've got a little time, and I hope they can appreciate what they did in the season."
The Ravens posted their best record in franchise history with yesterday's 19-7 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Season, W-L, Div.
1996 4-12 5th
1997 6-9-1 5th
1998 6-10 4th
1999 8-8 3rd
2000 12-4* 2nd
2001 10-6* 2nd
2002 7-9 3rd
2003 10-6* 1st
2004 9-7 2nd
2005 6-10 T3rd
2006 13-3* 1st
*-Made playoffsCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun