With two big obstacles gone, Ravens' road to Super Bowl less bumpy

The Baltimore Sun

As Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning walked off the field in anguish Saturday night after the Colts' loss to the San Diego Chargers, some of the Ravens had to be smiling in their Miami hotel rooms.

No NFL quarterback has tortured the Ravens' defense in recent years as much as Manning has, so it was great to know the road to the Super Bowl didn't have to go through Indianapolis.

Thus far in the postseason, the Ravens have gotten some significant breaks. They don't have to deal with Manning. There was no wild-card game in New England or going head-to-head with The Genius, Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

That's not to just say the Ravens are lucky. When you win 12 games in the NFL, you're pretty good. But with one game left in the regular season, playing in New England and against Manning were the two major obstacles to the Ravens' winning the title. Now, you have to like their chances better.

Call it luck. Call it destiny. Call it whatever you want, but at this point in the season, you take what you can get.

The Ravens didn't want to see Manning. The last time they did, he carved up their secondary for 271 yards and 31 points. It was a clear mismatch because of Manning's arm, the Colts' overall speed and the outstanding receivers on their roster compared with the Ravens' makeshift secondary.

But with Manning and crew out of the playoffs, the four remaining AFC teams - the Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Chargers and Tennessee Titans - are built pretty much the same, except San Diego likes to throw more than the other three.

All four teams like to play strong, physical defense, and none of them will back down from a good fight. That's why the Ravens' chances of winning are nearly as good as the other teams'. Tennessee had to rally late in the fourth quarter to beat the Ravens, and Pittsburgh had to complete last-minute comebacks for both victories over Baltimore.

But here's the X-factor for the Ravens: There is no Manning or Tom Brady or even Brett Favre left who can take advantage of their suspect secondary.

Tennessee's Kerry Collins? He's a veteran and a proven commodity, but he doesn't put the fear of Dan Marino in anyone.

San Diego's Philip Rivers? Gimme a break. Tough guy. Strong personality. But one game he might throw four touchdown passes, and the next day he might throw four interceptions. He's the poster child for better-than-average quarterbacks in the NFL.

Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger? The dude is a head case. He likes drama. If he doesn't have an injury, he will invent one. The kid is scary, though. He makes big plays in crunch time.

But with the Patriots and Colts, the odds were high that the Ravens couldn't beat them. The Ravens, though, know they can beat Pittsburgh and Tennessee.

Will they?

That's the $1 million question. But at least it's not the same situation with the Ravens and Miami. There was no way the Dolphins were going to beat the Ravens on Sunday. The Ravens had physically abused them earlier in the season, and you can't heal those psychological scars in a few months. The Ravens are tough, and Miami was soft.

But the final two games in the AFC playoffs will be brawls, and the Ravens thrive in those games. The Ravens will have to travel for both to get to the Super Bowl, but they've won big games on the road this season.

They have absolutely no fear of either Pittsburgh or Tennessee, and Ravens safety Ed Reed laid the gauntlet down Sunday when he said: "Tennessee, here we come. Here come the Ravens. The team you don't want to see."

There wasn't any swagger or arrogance, but confidence. The Ravens are feeling it right now.

The Ravens have had some things go wrong. They will be playing their 17th game without a week off Saturday, and they are on a short week for preparation. That might play head games with some teams, but the Ravens thrive on situations like these. Nothing disturbs them. They just keep grinding away.

The defense was overwhelming against Miami, and Ed Reed was Ed Reed. Big plays are expected whenever he is in the vicinity of the ball. The running game was strong Sunday, and the only downside was that the passing game didn't leave you feeling warm and fuzzy about the Ravens' victory.

But that's the style the Ravens play sometimes. And San Diego, Pittsburgh and Tennessee often play the same way. With the quarterback situation, Flacco isn't that far behind Rivers, Collins or even Roethlisberger.

Everything is close to being equal. There is no Brady, no Genius and no Patriots. And after this weekend with the departure of Manning and the Colts, the Ravens' chances of winning the conference championship increased significantly.

Listen to Mike Preston on Mondays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Fox Sports (1370 AM).

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