HOT DATE Rematch in Miami awaits Ravens in first round of AFC playoffs after Flacco and the offense cruise past Jaguars

The NFL landscape already was littered with the corpses of teams that, like the Ravens yesterday, had to win to get in. Now, here were the Ravens, in front of an eardrum-shattering home crowd, seemingly positioning themselves for a chalk outline of their own. They trailed the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars 7-3 in the final minute of the first quarter.

So, Derrick Mason was asked afterward, there was a window there for the Jaguars to ...


"No, it wasn't," Mason immediately corrected. "Don't let anybody fool you that it was there. It was never there. Granted, they're a good team. But that window was never there, because we know what kind of a team we have."

The entire league knows, too. The Ravens slammed the window on the Jaguars' fingers, smoking them for touchdowns on their next three possessions, putting the game away, locking down the last AFC wild-card berth with a 27-7 victory at M&T; Bank Stadium, and eliminating any need for them to have to watch the scoreboard, or anything with a scoreboard.


It's how any self-respecting team wants to earn its postseason bread, but it's what a lot of teams couldn't manage. The New England Patriots won their game earlier, but they needed the Ravens to lose. The New York Jets needed help and not only didn't get it, but also didn't help themselves. In the NFC, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the crummy Oakland Raiders at home, the Chicago Bears lost to the .500 Houston Texans on the road, and the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings barely scraped by against either inferior teams or those eager to rest players for the real season.

The only scraping the Ravens did - after the Jaguars crept to that early lead - was scraping their opponent off the bottoms of their cleats. Their extreme, season-long case of tunnel vision served them well again, and it guided them right into a rematch with Miami on Sunday.

One more time, John Harbaugh, why are these Ravens so good at keeping their eyes trained on the prize?

"We talked about it before. I know you guys laughed," the first-year head coach said, then laughed himself. "We have mighty men. We have a strong bunch of guys. They're resilient. They're rough and tough. They come to work every day, and they prepare. That doesn't guarantee you anything, but you have a chance to come out and play well every week."

To Harbaugh's everlasting credit, he first broke out that "mighty men" line at perhaps the season's lowest point, after the shellacking in Indianapolis that was the Ravens' third straight loss after a 2-0 start. From then on, they went 9-2. No wonder Harbaugh can chuckle about it now.

Leaving nothing to chance, however, long before yesterday's kickoff he ordered the Patriots-Bills game off the big screens, where it had been playing as fans filed in and players warmed up. Too late for a few players, of course: "Oh, I sneaked a little bit of a peek," Samari Rolle fessed up.

It hardly shook their concentration, although that wasn't obvious early on, when the offense kept getting in its own way and eventually set up the David Garrard-Alvin Pearman 23-yard scoring play. Was the carnage of the early games (and a few of the late ones) proving to be an omen for the Ravens?



"The bottom line is, it's going to happen sometimes," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who was almost flawless from that point on, until he took a seat for good in the fourth quarter. "So we all understand that we've just got to go out there and keep playing our game, and the game's going to come to us."

Because of that, the Ravens have one more game coming to them.

Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

RAVENS (11-5) @DOLPHINS (11-5)

AFC wild-card

Sunday, 1 p.m.


TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Ravens by 3

Tickets: On sale at 9 a.m. today; contact Ticket- master or call 800-745-3000.