The Ravens completed an improbable turnaround from a dysfunctional, 5-11 also-ran to confident playoff team yesterday behind a rookie quarterback and first-year coach.
Playing in front of a full-throated crowd of 71,366 at M&T; Bank Stadium, the Ravens thumped the Jacksonville Jaguars, 27-7, to clinch the sixth seed in the American Football Conference. Now 11-5, they will play the Miami Dolphins in South Florida next weekend in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
-The Dolphins captured the AFC East title on the final weekend of the regular season with a 24-17 victory over New York Jets. The Ravens beat the Dolphins 27-13 on Oct. 19 behind a dominant performance by their defense.
"It means we have a chance to keep playing," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the game. "That's the great thing about the NFL. They play for the championship. We'll have an opportunity to be in the tournament, and we'll have an opportunity to prove if we're the best team in the NFL. That's what we're going to try to do."
It was a near-perfect day in Baltimore, from the almost balmy temperatures - for December, anyway - to the halftime ceremony feting members of the Colts' 1958 championship game, to the methodical dismantling of the Jaguars.
The Ravens exceeded expectations of most fans with the turnaround from a disappointing 2007 season, when they lost nine straight games at one point.
Mercury Aatif Morris, a 24-year-old music teacher at Crisfield High on the Eastern Shore, said he had similar expectations.
"I expected them to go 5-11 again and have kind of a rebuilding season because of the rookie coach and quarterback," said Morris, whose father named him after the former Miami Dolphins running back. "I didn't expect them to have a shot at the AFC North title or the playoffs.
"I think they can do a lot of damage [in the postseason]. They have good defense, they can run the ball and the quarterback doesn't make too many mistakes."
Quarterback Joe Flacco, the team's first-round draft choice in April, had perhaps his most effective day of the season. He raked the Jacksonville defense for five passes of at least 25 yards, completing 17 of 23 for a season-high 297 yards.
He completed passes of 48 and 47 yards to wide receiver Mark Clayton, 39 yards to Derrick Mason and 36 yards to Troy Smith on a trick play in the third quarter that led to Matt Stover's second field goal and final score.
"We had guys breaking wide open down the field," Flacco said. "They weren't little chunks, they were big chunks. A couple guys were making nice catches."
They took control of the game in the second quarter with three touchdown drives of more than 70 yards on three consecutive possessions. Le'Ron McClain scored on runs of 5 yards and 1 yard, and Willis McGahee punched in a 13-yard run to open a 24-7 halftime lead that was never threatened.
The Ravens' defense forced four turnovers, two on interceptions by safety Ed Reed, who led the NFL with nine this season despite playing with a nerve impingement in his shoulder and neck. Reed had his fourth two-interception game of the season and eighth of his career.
"It's just a totally new team, a totally new coaching staff," Reed said. "The coaches did a great job getting us prepared. This team came together in training camp, helping each other, being there for each other."
The Ravens have played the last 15 consecutive weeks because Hurricane Ike hit Texas, forcing a week 2 postponement. Still, they go into the playoffs with a head of steam, having won nine of their past 11 games and five of the last six.
Joe Bach, a Carroll County native who works for Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development, said he was willing to concede a year of rebuilding by the team.
"[Offensive coordinator Cam] Cameron is probably a genius, compared to what we've had in the past," said Bach, who has had season tickets since 1996. "I was so disgusted with [previous coach Brian] Billick. These guys play as a team, and that makes a tremendous difference."
Bach's daughter, 16-year-old Caitlin, a basketball star at North Carroll High, said a few hours before the Ravens' 4:15 p.m. start that she wanted the Patriots to win in Buffalo "so this game will be meaningful."