On a day when the other AFC wild-card contenders folded at an amazing rate, the Ravens took advantage of their opportunities to seize control of their playoff future.
Converting six turnovers from a late-arriving Chicago Bears team into 24 points, the Ravens rolled to a 31-7 victory in their final regular-season game at M&T Bank Stadium and raced past a free-falling AFC field to move into the No. 5 seed.
On Saturday, a major snowstorm stopped the Bears from arriving in Baltimore until 10:49 p.m., 17 hours before kickoff. On Sunday, the avalanche crashed upon Chicago (5-9) in the form of the Ravens' opportunistic defense and surprising passing attack.
The Ravens (8-6) won back-to-back games for the first time since September because the defense matched a team record in turnovers (four interceptions and two forced fumbles) and quarterback Joe Flacco (21 of 29 for 234 yards) threw a career-best four touchdown passes despite missing two of his top three wide receivers.
By the end of the chilly night (game-time wind chill was 20 degrees), the four teams that the Ravens needed to lose - the Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars - all lost in Week 15. The Ravens now are guaranteed a playoff berth if they win their next two games (at Pittsburgh and at Oakland).
With everything falling into place, do the Ravens feel they are fated to reach the postseason?
"Who knows?" said tight end Todd Heap, who matched his season total with two touchdown catches. "We'll keep winning, and we'll figure it out from there."
The celebration was tempered only by the loss of starting cornerback Lardarius Webb (likely anterior cruciate ligament tear in right knee), who is expected to be lost for the season. Chris Carr likely will be the third cornerback to start opposite Domonique Foxworth.
"If he can play for us the rest of the way, we're all going to breathe a sigh of relief," coach John Harbaugh said of Webb. "Right now, I'm not optimistic."
It was truly Separation Sunday for the Ravens. The Dolphins fell in overtime at Tennessee. The Jets collapsed in the final two minutes to the Atlanta Falcons on a fourth-down touchdown pass. The Broncos lost at home to the Oakland Raiders on a touchdown pass with 35 seconds left in the game.
There was no such drama for the Ravens, who continue to shed the image of a slow-starting team.
The Ravens picked off Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who has thrown the most interceptions in the NFL, on the first two series of the game and turned the turnovers into touchdowns.
An interception by Foxworth at midfield led to a 14-yard touchdown pass to Heap. An interception by Jarret Johnson in the red zone led to a 7-yard touchdown pass to Heap.
The Ravens didn't just jump out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. They also sent a message.
"They know they can't make any mistakes," Heap said. "They've already made a couple, and they can't make any more. So it really takes them out of their game plan."
Chicago responded with a marathon drive early in the second quarter, but the Bears couldn't get into the end zone despite seven plays in the red zone, including three tries from the 1-yard line. On fourth-and-goal, Cutler overthrew 6-foot-5 tight end Greg Olsen, who had the pass go off his fingertips in the end zone.
The Bears did close to within 14-7 in the second quarter on Earl Bennett's 49-yard punt return for a touchdown. Four Ravens had a shot at tackling Bennett inside the 15-yard line.
The Ravens put the game away with two touchdown passes by Flacco in the first 4:40 of the second half.
On the opening series of the third quarter, little-used Demetrius Williams caught a 20-yard pass to convert third-and-9 and then pulled in a 32-yard touchdown grab. Despite defensive pass interference by Charles Tillman, Williams got between Tillman and safety Al Afalava for his first touchdown since October 2008.
Williams was playing only because Mark Clayton (knee and hamstring) and Kelley Washington (ankle) were sidelined.
"It doesn't matter who's out there, we are going to have trust in who's lining up," said Flacco, who finished with a career-best 135.6 quarterback rating.
The Ravens forced their third turnover when the Ravens' Cary Williams stripped Johnny Knox on the ensuing kickoff. Five plays later, Flacco hit wide receiver Derrick Mason for an 18-yard touchdown.
The Bears suddenly found themselves down 28-7 before their offense had even run a play in the second half.
"We've talked about it over the last few weeks about starting fast," Heap said. "You can talk about it all you want, but the biggest thing is you have to go out there and do it."
Chicago's first three turnovers were converted into touchdowns, which was a major turnaround for the Ravens. In their previous eight games, the Ravens had scored only three touchdowns off 13 turnovers.
"I think good teams can get a turnover, but great teams convert them," said Foxworth, who finished with his first multiple-interception game.
The Ravens increased the lead to 31-7 after defensive tackle Haloti Ngata slapped the ball out of the grip of Chicago running back Matt Forte and recovered the fumble. The Bears' fourth turnover was converted into a 40-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff.
That finished off another rout for the Ravens, who have defeated their past two opponents by a combined score of 79-10. While the rest of the AFC contenders have faded recently, the Ravens are getting stronger.
"Hopefully, we're building momentum at the right time," Harbaugh said. "That's what we're trying to do."
Harbaugh said his players brought up the Steelers during his post-game talk. The Steelers (7-7), who are a game behind the Ravens, are fighting for their playoff lives.
"They'll be excited to play us, and we'll be excited to play them," Harbaugh said. "There's nothing we can really say to get them any more fired up to play the game, and there's nothing they can say. That's just the kind of game it is. We'll be looking forward to being there, and I'm sure they'll be looking forward for us to be there, too."
Baltimore Sun reporter Ken Murray contributed to this article.
By the numbers 3Interceptions of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who has the most in the NFL with 25. The Ravens turned the first two into touchdowns.
4 Touchdowns by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, a career high for a game. He threw three TDs against the Chiefs in a 38-24 win Sept. 13.
21The Ravens' streak of consecutive games without surrendering a touchdown via a kick or punt return before Earl Bennett returned a punt by Sam Koch 49 yards for a score.
69Margin of victory for the Ravens in their past two games. They defeated the Lions and Bears by a combined score of 79-10.
200Number of games played by Derrick Mason in his 13-year career. He led the Ravens with six catches for 87 yards and one touchdown.
Rude hosts Among AFC teams, the Ravens have the second-best home record against NFC teams since 2003:Team Record Pct. Patriots 14-0 1.000Ravens 13-1 .929 Colts 12-2 .857Jaguars 12-2 .857Steelers 12-2 .857Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun