After enduring a brutal stretch of playing six division leaders and the defending Super Bowl champions, the Ravens have no excuses for not hitting the playoff homestretch in a sprint.

The Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers have the easiest remaining schedules of the AFC wild-card contenders. Their final five opponents have a combined record of 22-33 (.400).

For the Ravens, there are no more division leaders left on the schedule. Only two teams (the Green Bay Packers and the Steelers) have winning records. And the other three teams (the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders) lost by a combined 65 points in Week 12.

"We've got five games left, and we need every one of those just as much as this one," quarterback Joe Flacco said after the Ravens' 20-17 overtime win over the Steelers on Sunday night. "So, we've got to go out there and realize that."

If the season ended today, the Ravens (6-5) wouldn't make the playoffs. The Denver Broncos (7-4) and Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5) are the leaders in the AFC wild-card race (the Jaguars' 5-2 conference record is better than the Ravens' 6-4 AFC mark).

The Broncos likely will reach 10 wins because they have two games against the Kansas City Chiefs and one against Oakland. But the Jaguars are vulnerable because they have the toughest remaining schedule among the AFC's six-win teams. Jacksonville has to play the Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts at home before traveling to New England.

The Ravens' win over Pittsburgh (6-5) has given them an edge over their AFC North rivals and has put them in position to overtake Jacksonville for the sixth and final playoff spot.

"This is a confidence-booster, not only against a great team with a great legacy, but a divisional opponent," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "It sets us up for a five-game season right now. I'd be a fool to say there isn't a lot of emotion."

Along with the aches and pains that come after their grudge match with the Steelers, the Ravens have to overcome the emotional hangover.

Recent history shows that it's tough for the Ravens to beat Pittsburgh, but it's even tougher to win the next game. Since 2003, the Ravens have a 2-3 record in games after a victory over the Steelers.

In 2003, the Ravens beat Pittsburgh, 13-10, in overtime before falling to the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the playoffs. In 2005, the Ravens edged the Steelers, 16-13, only to lose at Cincinnati. In 2006, the Ravens routed Pittsburgh, 27-0, but again lost at Cincinnati.

"It was a big win, there's no denying that," John Harbaugh said of his first win over Pittsburgh as Ravens coach. "It was big for a lot of reasons. We talk about November and December being the most important part of the season."

Here's a breakdown of how the Ravens beat the odds in their comeback victory:

* Converting fourth-and-5 when trailing 17-14 with 3:31 remaining. Before Ray Rice broke the 44-yard gain, the Ravens had been 2-for-7 on fourth downs this season (.285), fourth-worst in the NFL.

But Rice beat linebacker James Farrior over the middle and ran through two tackles in the secondary (safety Tyrone Carter and cornerback Ike Taylor) to set up the game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter.

* Paul Kruger making the game-changing interception in overtime. The little-used second-round pick became the first Ravens rookie to make an interception since Dawan Landry in 2006. It was also unusual to see Kruger picking off that pass because he had only two interceptions in 26 games at Utah.

Still, he dropped back in a Steeler-esque zone blitz to intercept first-time starting quarterback Dennis Dixon and returned it 26 yards to set up the winning field goal.

* Pounding the ball on the last drive in overtime against the NFL's top-ranked run defense. After Kruger's interception put the Ravens at the Steelers' 28-yard line, the Ravens ran up the gut with Rice four straight times for 19 yards (before Flacco lost 2 yards with a kneel-down to center the ball for a field goal). That capped a 132-yard rushing game for the Ravens.

Rice's runs helped turn a 46-yard field-goal attempt into a 29-yard kick.

* Hitting the game-tying field goal with 1:51 left in regulation and the game-winner in overtime. Steve Hauschka was 1-for-3 on fourth-quarter field-goal tries before being released. In two games, Billy Cundiff has hit three of four field goals in the fourth quarter and overtime (his only miss was a desperation 56-yarder).

"I came here to do two things: that was to make field goals and bring some stability," Cundiff said. "I've done that for two weeks, so now I've got to continue to do that because we've got a long road ahead, obviously."

With the softest remaining schedule of the AFC wild-card contenders, it's certainly a favorable road ahead for the Ravens.


TV: ESPN, Ch. 13

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Line: Packers by 3

The road ahead

The Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers have the easiest remaining schedules of the AFC wild-card contenders:

Team Opp. rec. Pct.

Ravens (6-5) 22-33 .400

Pittsburgh (6-5) 22-33 .400

Houston (5-6) 23-32 .418

Denver (7-4) 27-28 .490

Tennessee (5-6) 29-26 .527

Jacksonville (6-5) 29-26 .527

Miami (5-6) 29-26 .527

N.Y. Jets (5-6) 30-25 .545

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