Ravens left on outside looking in

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TONY DUNGY SAID last week he wanted to win the Indianapolis Colts' regular-season finale in Denver.

What he didn't say was that he wanted to win it with Jim Sorgi and Dominic Rhodes, not Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James.

It figured the Colts coach would spare his stars in a meaningless game against the Broncos and that it ultimately would cost the Ravens their shot at the playoffs. In truth, whatever chance the Ravens had for postseason glory was long gone before Week 17.

Yesterday's 33-14 thrashing of the Colts by the Broncos merely served as the exclamation point to a season gone bad in Baltimore. When the Buffalo Bills lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 29-24, earlier in the day, the Ravens saw a glimmer of hope, but they needed losses by both the Broncos and the Jacksonville Jaguars in later games.

Neither the Broncos nor the Jaguars lost, and a year after they won their first division title, the Ravens were left out in the cold.

At 10-6, the Broncos advance to the playoffs as the sixth seed in the AFC. Their reward is a rematch with the Colts on Sunday in Indianapolis, where they were crushed, 41-10, in the wild-card round of the 2003 playoffs.

The New York Jets claimed the AFC's fifth seed with the Bills' loss. That was fortunate because the Jets couldn't clinch on their own, losing, 32-29, to the St. Louis Rams. The Jets return to San Diego for their wild-card game on Saturday night, having beaten the Chargers in Week 2, 34-28.

In the end, the Ravens' season depended on Sorgi, a rookie quarterback out of Wisconsin, and Rhodes, a journeyman running back. Dungy opted to play Manning only one series in Denver, and gave James only one carry, for a 2-yard loss, before turning the game over to their underlings.

Sorgi, a sixth-round pick in last April's draft, got off to a good start for the Colts, but his success was fleeting. He tossed a 7-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Harrison (five catches) for a 7-0 lead.

But before Sorgi picked up his second NFL touchdown pass, a 71-yard catch-and-run play with Reggie Wayne, the Colts were down by 10 points and playing the clock.

Sorgi, who threw only four previous passes, completed 16 of 25 throws for 168 yards. He was no match for Denver's Jake Plummer, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third. The Broncos scored the game's last 16 points, and the Colts didn't score in the second half.

As it turned out, even had the Ravens dodged that bullet, they would have been bounced from the postseason when Jacksonville sloshed past the Oakland Raiders, 13-6.

Vikings back in

When the postseason scenarios played out in the NFC, they produced another pair of rematches. Minnesota's 21-18 loss to the Washington Redskins opened the playoff door for the Rams, who then earned a wild-card berth by beating the Jets.

The tepid NFC West was won -- barely -- by the Seattle Seahawks. They had to deny a two-point conversion try by the Atlanta Falcons following a touchdown pass by backup quarterback Matt Schaub to secure a 28-26 victory.

At 9-7, the Seahawks will face the 8-8 Rams for the third time this season in Saturday's wild-card round at home. The Rams beat the Seahawks in Week 5 by overturning a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to win, 33-27, in overtime. They also beat Seattle in Week 10 at home, 23-12, when Marshall Faulk ran for 139 yards.

The Vikings were on the verge of their second straight playoff bust, but Carolina's 21-18 loss to New Orleans saved them that embarrassment.

The Vikings travel to Green Bay on Sunday to play the NFC North champion Packers for the third time this season. Green Bay won both previous games by identical 34-31 scores.

Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper was spectacular in those two losses, throwing for 648 yards and seven touchdowns (no interceptions). But Packers quarterback Brett Favre (601 yards, seven TDs, one interception) won both games with late drives.

Breakthroughs

A year after eight different teams broke into the 2003 playoff field, only five new teams made the 12-team playoff field this season. Three came from the AFC, two from the NFC.

The new faces in the AFC belonged to the Steelers, Chargers and Jets. The Steelers and Jets were both 6-10 in 2003, but the Chargers made the biggest jump. They were an NFL-worst 4-12 a year ago, and turned that around to a 12-4 division winner in the AFC West.

In the NFC, the Falcons and Vikings advance after missing the postseason in 2003.

The biggest dive belonged to the Tennessee Titans, who went from 12-4 wild-card team to injury-riddled, 5-11 also-ran. The Kansas City Chiefs had the second biggest drop, a six-game swing, going from 13-3 to 7-9.

Subbing out

As expected, reserves dominated the lineups of several playoff teams in Week 17. The Philadelphia Eagles, with home-field advantage nailed down in the NFC, sat quarterback Donovan McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook, among others, in a 38-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Eagles' second straight loss will raise questions about the team's mental state after losing playmaking receiver Terrell Owens two weeks ago and losing their past two games by a cumulative 58-17. If nothing else, the Eagles know they can't win any games with Koy Detmer or Jeff Blake at quarterback.

The Falcons let quarterback Michael Vick play one series into the second quarter before turning their game over to Schaub, a rookie. But they kept Warrick Dunn in the game to the end. He was stopped on the team's two-point conversion try that would have forced overtime in Seattle.

The Steelers let quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's bruised ribs heal on the sideline, along with receiver Plaxico Burress and running back Jerome Bettis. At that, quarterback Tommy Maddox eventually gave way to Brian St. Pierre, a practice squad player last week.

In New England, Patriots coach Bill Belichick kept his quarterback, Tom Brady, in the game long enough to throw for 226 yards and two touchdowns, and he allowed running back Corey Dillon to roll up 116 yards on 14 carries.

Et cetera

AFC teams won three of four meetings with the NFC yesterday to take the season series by a whopping 44-20. ... Seattle's Shaun Alexander lost the NFL rushing title to the Jets' Curtis Martin by 1 yard, 1,697-1,696. ... Favre passed for 196 yards and two touchdowns before giving way to Craig Nall in a 31-14 win over Chicago. With that total, Favre went over 4,000 passing yards (4,088) for the fourth time in his career, and first since 1999. ... The San Francisco 49ers' 2-14 record matches the team's worst, accomplished in both 1978 and 1979. They allowed 452 points, one fewer than the team record of 453.

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