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With win over Saints on Monday, Ravens bolster their playoff standing

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk felt the pressure increase after he got to New Orleans on Sunday afternoon, checked out scores from around the NFL and realized that most of the teams the Ravens needed to lose had won.

Rather than scoreboard watch, wide receiver Steve Smith opted for a different approach, one that may serve the Ravens well as they attempt to secure a playoff spot over the next five weeks in an ultra-competitive AFC.

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"Didn't pay attention to Sunday," Smith said after the Ravens' well-earned 34-27 win over the New Orleans Saints. "I didn't watch it, I didn't care about it. I just knew we had to focus on ourselves. I'm not going to watch any football. I may watch a little bit on Thanksgiving, but I'm not going to watch any football and focus on them. It's all about us and what we need to do."

The Ravens walked out of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome early Tuesday morning in far better position than when they arrived and with a much clearer path to the postseason. At 7-4, they stayed a half-game behind the first-place Cincinnati Bengals (7-3-1) in the AFC North, the only division in NFL history to have every team at least three games over .500 at any point in the season.

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Though Cleveland and Pittsburgh have 7-4 records, the Ravens are technically in second place in the division because they have the best record in combined games between the three teams.

As for the conference, a league-record 11 of 16 AFC teams will enter Week 12 with a winning record and the Ravens currently occupy the seventh playoff spot. The top six teams make the playoffs but over the next two weeks, the Ravens will have a chance to improve their standing significantly with a home game Sunday against the San Diego Chargers (7-4), the current sixth seed, followed by a road matchup against the 10th-seeded Miami Dolphins (6-5) on Dec.7.

"You're going to have to win a lot of games to win the division," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You're going to have to win a lot of games to make the playoffs in our conference. It's just a fact. You're going to need every win you can get. To get this win was very big. Next week's going to be even bigger."

It was mentioned in the visitor's locker room Monday night that the victory over the Saints may have been one of the team's biggest since they beat the San Francisco 49ers to win Super Bowl XLVII in the same stadium some 21 months ago.

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Veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata didn't argue that point.

"Huge win," he said. "You lose one game and you're going to be toward the bottom of the AFC."

Harbaugh doesn't deal in comparisons, but he said the victory was "very special" and he felt his team made a statement, particularly early in the game when the defense made a huge goal-line stand on the Saints' first drive, stopping New Orleans three times from inside the 2-yard line.

The Ravens' offense then got the ball on its own 3-yard line and drove the length of the field on the Saints for a touchdown.

"That's courageous playing," Harbaugh said.

In beating the Saints, the Ravens completed a four-game sweep of the NFC South, outscoring the opposition, 149-61, in the process. They earned their third road victory, surpassing last year's total, and doing it in a building where New Orleans had won 14 straight prime-time games.

They also beat Drew Brees-quarterbacked teams for the fourth time in as many tries, the only team in the NFL that can make that claim. But beyond all of that, the players felt that this type of victory could be the necessary push to spur a successful playoff run. It also could serve as a blueprint to how the team will have to perform to still be playing into January.

"There were a lot of good things that we did," said strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who had two more sacks, giving him 12½ for the season, a half sack off the league lead. "At the end of the game, we have to finish better but those are things that we can build on. We played with a lot of emotion. It was a hostile environment. It was a tough game going into the second half, but we just stuck to what we did and we were able to finish."

It wasn't perfect by any means. The Ravens allowed Bress to throw for 420 yards and three touchdowns after all. But they also dominated the line of scrimmage, rushing for 215 yards and two touchdowns on offense, and sacking Brees four times on defense.

Quarterback Joe Flacco, who didn't commit a turnover, made the Saints pay for blitzing. He directed an offense that was 9-for-13 on third down. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak kept feeding Justin Forsett (career-high 182 rushing yards) and the Ravens' run game picked up yards in chunks throughout.

And despite allowing a plethora big plays, the Ravens' much-maligned secondary made the key play of the game when safety Will Hill stepped in front of a Brees third-quarter pass and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. That gave the visitors a 24-17 lead they'd never relinquish.

"It feels good," said Hill who spent most of the night matching up with Saints star tight end Jimmy Graham. "My father always talks to me and is like, 'Yeah, this is your game, this is your game.' I told my teammates before the game, 'Look, I got that feeling, I got that good feeling.' I had to back it up."

Hill and the rest of the Ravens' defense left New Orleans knowing another difficult challenge is right around the corner. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who has given the Ravens' defense problems over the years, has cooled off since a hot start, but he's still thrown for 22 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions and he's completing over 68 percent of his passes.

"We just have to prepare because a good San Diego team is coming into our house," Dumervil said. "It's going to go all the way down into a dogfight and that's what this division is about. That's why I chose to come here, to be a part of that. There's nothing better than teams coming into our house, in front of our crowd. We're excited."

The Chargers have a 5-3 conference record, compared to the Ravens' 3-4 mark against AFC teams. That's why an opportunity for the Ravens to get a head-to-head victory, which could be vital in any postseason tie-break scenarios, looms large Sunday.

"I think everybody we needed to lose won this week," Juszczyk said. "When you're the last team to play, you see those scores and it adds a little bit of pressure. For us to still keep our poise and take care of business like we did is really big. We've been saying this is a six-game season. We're basically all even. It's whoever can get to the finish line first."

Sun staff writer Aaron Wilson contributed to this article

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