Ravens tall in saddle for stretch

Four games from the end of an improbable regular season - and possibly the start of what once was an even more unlikely postseason - the Ravens still have all playoff options in front of them.

Division title? Still attainable. As it stands, the Ravens can erase a one-game deficit and Pittsburgh's tiebreaking edge in the AFC North by beating the Steelers on Dec. 14 at M&T; Bank Stadium. That would open the door to a possible home game in January and perhaps even a first-round bye.


Wild-card berth? There for the taking. At 8-4, the Ravens are in position to claim the second wild-card spot in the AFC. But they might have to fend off the New England Patriots (7-5) to finish the job. And that probably means winning three of their final four.

Catching the Steelers is doable, although difficult.


Getting caught by the Patriots pretty much happens only if the Ravens drop two of their last four games and New England sweeps its final four.

"I think it's more likely that Baltimore catches Pittsburgh," ESPN analyst Tom Jackson said, "than New England getting into the playoffs."

Jackson's rationale is defense drives December success. A former Pro Bowl linebacker, he also said the Steelers showed how to beat the Patriots on Sunday - by pressuring quarterback Matt Cassel. After throwing for 400 or more yards in consecutive games, Cassel threw for just 169 and was sacked five times in a 33-10 loss to the Steelers at home.

"Last week, we saw what happens if [Cassel] gets pressure," Jackson said.

"I have such respect for the Ravens' defense and such respect for those two teams in the North [Ravens and Steelers]. I think people will find as we come down the stretch that what wins football games is what beat New England last week - great defense that is portable and an offense that is the same."

The Ravens and Steelers have similar stretch-run schedules. Each team faces three playoff contenders and one also-ran. But the Ravens get three of their last four at home, a seeming reward for having to play 15 straight weeks.

Pittsburgh gets the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at home, then travels to Baltimore and the Tennessee Titans, finishing at home against the Cleveland Browns.

The Ravens close with the Washington Redskins on Sunday, the Steelers at home, the Dallas Cowboys in Texas in Week 16 and the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 17.


For the Ravens to win the division title, they almost certainly have to beat the Steelers on Dec. 14. Failing that, they still can get a wild-card berth with 11 wins.

The Indianapolis Colts should get the AFC's first wild card. They won't catch the Titans in the AFC South, but they should win three of their last four for a minimum of 11 wins. And they've already beaten the Ravens, so they have a tiebreaker advantage.

The Ravens will have to hold off the Patriots for the second wild card. New England plays three of its last four on the road, including the next two on the West Coast - but all are winnable games. They travel to Seattle to play the Seahawks and Oakland to face the Raiders the next two weeks, likely staying on the coast in between.

Then the Patriots get the Arizona Cardinals at home and finish at Buffalo against the Bills. With 11 wins, they would challenge the AFC East-leading New York Jets. But the Jets have an even better finishing schedule and should withstand the Patriots' push.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh's next-game-only mantra has permeated the team's Owings Mills complex, but it's part and parcel of the stretch run to assess the variables. Here's our look at December:



If the Cowboys reach the playoffs this season, they will have earned it. If the New York Giants retain the No. 1 seed in the NFC, they will be overwhelming favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Why? December schedules.

Based on remaining opponents' records, the Cowboys have the toughest finishing month of the regular season among the contenders. They get the Steelers, Giants, Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles, who are a collective 34-13-1.

The Giants get the Eagles, Cowboys, Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings, for a combined 30-17-1. If coach Tom Coughlin can withstand that finish and the distraction of Plaxico Burress, he can punch a ticket to Tampa, Fla., site of this season's Super Bowl.

As the saying goes, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

The Panthers are another NFC team that will earn their way. Their opponents (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Denver Broncos, Giants, New Orleans Saints) are 33-15, second-toughest only to the Cowboys.


Easy paths?

Indianapolis has the easiest December schedule of any contender. The next three teams on the Colts' schedule (Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Jaguars) are 5-29-1. Week 17, they get the Titans, though.

The New York Jets also get a break. They must travel to the West Coast twice (against the San Francisco 49ers and Seahawks), but they'll be favored in each. They get Buffalo and Miami at home.


Attempting to join Harbaugh in a last place-to-playoffs jump this year is Atlanta Falcons rookie coach Mike Smith. The Falcons are 8-4, just like the Ravens, and hold the NFC's second wild-card spot at the moment. Michael Vick might not be forgotten, but the Falcons have definitely moved on.

Smith and Harbaugh have followed a similar trail to success: aggressive defense, solid running game. It's a formula that works well in December, even if you play in a dome, as the Falcons do.


If experience counts, five coaches in playoff contention have won the Super Bowl - Coughlin, Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden, Indianapolis' Tony Dungy, New England's Bill Belichick and Denver's Mike Shanahan.

Jeff Fisher of Tennessee and John Fox of Carolina got there and lost in close finishes.

Then there's Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, who would like to erase the memory of January's home playoff loss to the Jaguars. That can be powerful motivation.

In addition to Harbaugh and Smith, other first-year coaches in the mix but facing uphill climbs are the Redskins' Jim Zorn and Miami's Tony Sparano.


Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Baltimore rank 1-2-3 in yards allowed per play, a better indicator of defensive strength than total yards, which the NFL uses to rank its defenses.


The corresponding names are linebacker James Harrison, tackle Albert Haynesworth and linebacker Ray Lewis, all of whom should get consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.

The Steelers' defense has played at an extraordinary level, giving up 71.2 rush yards and 238.0 total yards per game. The Steelers have allowed the fewest points (14.2 per game). Second and third in points allowed are the Titans and Ravens. Clearly, these are the three best defenses in the league, although the Giants and Bucs in the NFC aren't far behind.

Defense may spoil the stretch run for teams like the Broncos (29th in points allowed, 30th in defensive rush average), Cardinals (tied for 27th in points allowed) and Falcons (24th in yards per play).

Not to overlook the Colts, who are perennially waiting for safety Bob Sanders to get healthy. The Colts beat the Browns last week without an offensive touchdown and won on a defensive touchdown. That makes them doubly dangerous.


It's a divergent group of quarterbacks aiming for the playoffs this season.


There are the recycled old guys: Kerry Collins of Tennessee, Kurt Warner of Arizona, Gus Frerotte of Minnesota, Jeff Garcia of Tampa Bay.

There are the inspirational guys: Eli Manning of the Giants, Peyton Manning of the Colts, Brett Favre of the Jets, Jay Cutler of Denver and Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh.

And there are the new guys: rookies Matt Ryan of Atlanta and Joe Flacco of the Ravens, the nos. 1 and 2 quarterbacks drafted last April.

"You watch those young guys down the stretch to see if they have it," Tom Jackson said, "because they've never done it."

Here's an interesting fact: There are four starting quarterbacks averaging better than 8 yards per pass attempt, but only Dallas' Tony Romo (8.5) is in position to make the playoffs. Which leads to the ...

Running game


In December, teams have to be able to run the ball in inclement weather. Nine of the top 10 rush teams have winning records (only the Oakland Raiders at No. 10 are losers). There's a distinct correlation.

Nobody runs the ball better than the Giants, and without Burress, the run might be even bigger in New York. Michael Turner (1,208 yards, 4.3 average), has sparked the turnaround in Atlanta.

The Ravens are the third-best rushing team in the NFL with what has been reduced to a dynamic twosome in Le'Ron McClain and Ray Rice.

Pittsburgh is conspicuously absent from the top rushing teams. In a departure from their storied tradition, the Steelers have rushed the ball 20 fewer times (347) than they've passed it, not counting sacks.