1. For starters, let's throw some love Willis McGahee's way. Not just for his performance against the Raiders -- 167 rushing yards and three touchdowns -- but for his attitude this season.

Yeah, I know you're supposed to be a team player, and that perhaps you shouldn't get any extra credit for doing the things you're supposed to do as a professional. So we won't praise him to the moon and back just for not causing a stir in the locker room when Ray Rice emerged as the Ravens' top running back. But don't let it go completely unnoticed either.


Swallowing your ego and doing what's best for the team is a difficult thing for an elite professional athlete. All your life, you've been living in a world where you're considered "The Man" by your coaches, your family, your friends and your fans. And then one day, it ends, and that's a rough transition for some guys to make. This season, McGahee handled that beautifully. Last year, he was clearly a little annoyed, but maybe it dawned on him that he was going to get paid either way, so if he simply played hard when he got the opportunity, that would be enough satisfaction.

He's been given numerous opportunities to stir up trouble this year. Every week, reporters have checked in with him, asked him how he's doing, just to get a read on whether he's still happy. And his answer has been pretty much the same: doing whatever I'm asked. He proved today that he could still be a very good starting running back in the NFL, and that he can still be an explosive playmaker. That stiff-arm on his 77-yard touchdown run was one of the best you'll ever see, and one of those rare plays that makes you stand up and say "Wow!" as a fan.

None of that should lessen what Rice did this year. Putting up 2,000 all-purpose yards is proof that he is someone the Ravens can build around. Rice is a more consistent player in the passing game, he's younger, he has a great attitude and he's great in pass protection. So going with him, in the long run, was definitely the right move. But McGahee helped make it work by stepping aside and allowing it to happen without a fuss. Locker room chemistry and harmony are really important in professional sports, because there is nothing collegiate to bond players together. They're independent contractors who understand that it's a very cold business. A little complaining can easily undo the concepts of brotherhood and selflessness. McGahee can still play a big role on this team in the playoffs, and he'll be glad, 10 years from now, about all the carries he didn't get during the regular season.2. It's hard to go across the country and win a football game in the NFL, even if the other team has nothing to play for. Let's concede that up front. And ultimately, it doesn't matter what the final score was as long as it was a victory, because the Ravens are going to the playoffs for the second consecutive season. That's something to be proud of, regardless of what expectations were this year.

All that said, it sure didn't feel like Ravens played with any urgency and anger this game. It seemed more like relief when JaMarcus Russell made enough mistakes to give the Ravens the game. The offensive line did a nice job in the run game, and McGahee and Rice ran with energy, but for most of the first half it seemed like everyone else was playing tight and nervous, as if they realized how embarrassing it would be to lose to a 5-10 team with a playoff spot on the line. John Harbaugh went out of his way to praise the Raiders in his post-game press conference, but it seemed a little undeserved to me. Yes, Oakland played hard when it could have folded, but the Ravens should have put this game away well before Russell ended up handing it to them.

Harbaugh's motivational tactics, obviously, work better some weeks than others. I actually thought this week that the Ravens would use all the criticism from the fans and media the past week as something that could give them focus and direction. They would have that chip on their shoulder that was so prevalent during the Billick era, but actually worked in terms of focusing the team. I expected they would come out and turn in a dominating, loose and exciting performance, something that would have given them momentum and scared other AFC teams a little bit. Instead, it felt a little joyless and business-like. That's OK, just not what I was hoping to see.

3. It's so hard to know what to think about Joe Flacco these days. By every statistical measure, he's having a far better season than he did a year ago, and he's progressing just the way you'd expect a second-year quarterback would progress. He's ultimately going to be very good. But his presence in the pocket seems like it's in total disarray right now.

No one thinks he should throw EVERY pass away when the protection breaks down, but lately, at the first sign of the pocket collapsing, he's tucking the ball and putting his head down, taking a sack. That's better than an interception, but it's hardly ideal.

He also needs to get the team out of the huddle quicker. This could be Cam Cameron isn't getting him the plays fast enough, but the Ravens really do drag their feet when they're not in the no huddle. I'm starting to think the reason Flacco seems to read the defense better when the Ravens go no huddle is because he actually has a chance to survey the field and guess where the pressure is going to come from as opposed to regular plays where he doesn't get under center until there are 8 seconds on the play clock and he doesn't have enough time to examine the defense. Also, can anyone explain why Mark Clayton immediately went back into the rotation ahead of Demetrius Williams? Makes very little sense right now.

4. I like Matt Katula a lot. He was kind enough earlier this year to teach me how to long snap for a goofy story I was working on, and struck me as one of the nicest professional athletes I'd ever encountered. But his injuries (elbow and hand) are really putting the Ravens in a pickle on field goals and punts.

He's a good long snapper, but he just isn't healthy right now. And as much as he may want to play every Sunday and grit through it, it might be time for Harbaugh to step in and tell him the team can no longer afford to have him whipping it all over the place. Billy Cundiff still probably should have made the shorter field goal in the first half -- Sam Koch bailed Katula out and got it down fairly quickly -- but Katula's snap on Cundiff's 51-yard field goal wasn't good either. And you could see Harbaugh was furious about it.

Harbaugh might want to look in the mirror on that one, though. I'm not sure about the logic in attempting a 51-yard field goal with a kicker who hasn't made one from that far in years, and with a snapper who is wilder right now than Daniel Cabrera was during his Orioles career. If Katula is hurting and can't be consistent, then he shouldn't be out there. And he certainly shouldn't be someone you need to be absolutely perfect on a 51-yard field goal with an 8-point lead and your season on the line.

Yes, it could have put the game away, which is I'm sure what Harbaugh will say if asked about it. But what were the odds he would make it? 10 percent? Maybe less? It also gave the Raiders a real chance to drive the ball down the short field for the game-tying touchdown and 2-point conversion. Sometimes it's infuriating when coaches "play the percentages" because it shows they don't have the guts to go for it and take the heat if it goes bad. But sometimes you play the percentages for a reason -- they give you the best chance to win.


5. This has been a wild season for the Ravens, but they actually do have a chance to beat New England if they run the ball the way they did today. Wes Welker's injury is a major blow for the Patriots because he really moves the chains for them and gives Tom Brady a chance to breathe. The reason the Ravens had a real chance to win the first time the two teams met is that Chris Carr did a great job on Welker, shutting him down. If he can do a similar job on Julian Edelman -- who is bigger, but not as quick -- then the Ravens should be able to get to Brady, who is reportedly playing with broken ribs.


But the Ravens need to understand that they can't go into New England expecting to get a single call, and when calls don't go their way, they have to act as if they expected it to happen all along. There isn't some conspiracy against the Ravens as far as penalties, but whining about it never helps. That's a shame, but it's true. And that goes for the head coach too. If the Ravens get flagged for hitting Brady late, or holding Randy Moss or Edelman, they need to stay composed, shut their mouths, and play on as if it will even out eventually. This team does have the talent to beat New England on the road, it just doesn't have the mental discipline right now. Fortunately, that's something that you can correct, but you really have to believe it instead of simply paying it lip service.

Last year, the Ravens showed the Dolphins and Titans that they were more physical, and mentally sharper when everyone had to play for all the marbles. Can they do it again?

Right now, I doubt it. I said last week that I didn't think they were a deserving playoff team, and the victory over the Raiders didn't really convince me otherwise. It would be dishonest to walk that back, or pretend it didn't get written, so I'll own it. They just haven't proven they can finish off a good team, or that they're disciplined enough to avoid penalties or special teams mistakes, two things that will kill you in the playoffs.

But they do have a chance, and that's going to be fun to watch either way. New England is ok, but not great. They should convince themselves this week that the whole world doesn't want them to win, that every call will go against them, and that Roger Goodell will be using a walkie-talking from a dark booth in Gillette Stadium, demanding phantom flags be thrown. They should tell one another that the league is desperate to have the Colts and Pats meet up in the playoffs once again. And then use that motivation to shock me, and the rest of the world.

Don't know that it will happen, but it could.

And that's what makes the NFL playoffs so much fun.