This is why Shannon Sharpe came to Baltimore after 10 years in Denver.

It's why Rob Burnett came back for his 11th NFL season.It's why Brian Billick came from Minnesota a year ago.

Playoff football became a reality for the Ravens yesterday when they rumbled past the San Diego Chargers, 24-3, in the cold and rain of a December homestretch at PSINet Stadium.

Their fifth straight victory secured the first postseason berth of their Baltimore tenure, and made a lot of career decisions look inspired in hindsight.

"The reason I didn't retire, the reason I came back here, is because of this," said Burnett, who began his career with the Cleveland Browns and figures to finish it here with the Ravens.

"I thought [making a playoff run] was a strong possibility. I felt like I'd be missing out, that I'd be cheated, if I didn't come back because I helped build this thing."

Burnett, 33, helped nail down the playoff spot yesterday with a tap-dance fumble recovery that belied his size (6 feet 4, 270 pounds) and position (defensive end).

The Ravens were protecting a 10-3 lead in the third quarter when Chargers running back Terrell Fletcher scampered around right end from inside his own 15. He had one man to beat for a big play, when safety Kim Herring not only made the tackle, but dislodged the ball as well with a helmet hit to the chest.

When it caromed back toward the goal line, Burnett made a nimble sideline move to retrieve and recover the ball at the 3-yard line.

Two plays later, running back Jamal Lewis made another athletic play, hurdling defensive end Al Fontenot for a 1-yard touchdown run and 17-3 lead. Everything that followed was academic.

The turnover was one of five on the day for the Ravens (10-4), who cashed in 21 points in the exchange. It was significant on a day when the Ravens' offense showed the rust of a bye week and the effects of a steady rain.

Burnett's athleticism did not go unnoticed by his teammates.

"I'm going to call him Fred Astaire," Herring said. "Anybody else would have dove on it, but he picked it up."

The Ravens took turns making Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf look like a first-round bust.

There was linebacker Cornell Brown's magnificent sack-and-strip that preceded a 28-yard touchdown pass from Trent Dilfer to Qadry Ismail in the second quarter.

There was cornerback Chris McAlister's second-quarter interception when Leaf (9-for-23 for 78 yards) overthrew intended receiver Curtis Conway by 10 yards.

There was linebacker Jamie Sharper's first-quarter fumble recovery after Leaf mishandled the center snap from Roman Fortin.

Leaf had no culpability, however, in the fifth turnover. That was purely the work of James Trapp, who alertly knocked blocker DeRon Jenkins into punt returner Nate Jacquet, sending both to the ground on a 27-yard punt by Kyle Richardson to the 13.

The ball hit the prone Jenkins - a former Raven - and was recovered by Brad Jackson. That was the 39th takeaway of the season for the Ravens.

On third-and-15, Dilfer (16-for-24 for 187 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions) found wide receiver Brandon Stokley for a 22-yard touchdown. Game, set, match.

The win boosted the Ravens' conference record to 9-3, second to Miami's 8-2 in the AFC. They may be a wild-card entry, but in Billick's second year as coach, the Ravens aren't shy about their Super Bowl aspirations.

"Brian told us greed is good," said Herring. "The playoffs are great, but we want it all."

Billick laid down his playoff goal as soon as last year's 8-8 season was finished.

"At the end of the year, we stood up and said anything less than the playoffs would be unsuccessful, not only for this year but last year," he said. "So to stand up and be accountable that way, and to live up to what you said you were going to do, sometimes is undervalued, and my hat's off to those guys in the [locker] room."

Freedom of speech returned to that locker room yesterday, too, when Billick finally lifted his ban of the word "playoffs."

"One word, two syllables," said Sharpe, the free-agent tight end who joined the team in February. "Playoff. It feels real good.

"I said at the beginning of the year, one of the main reasons I came here was to play in January. We still have two games to go, Arizona and the [ New York] Jets. We're jockeying for position.

"The goal was to get in the playoffs. Now it's a crapshoot. We've got just as good a chance as anyone else to get to Tampa [site of Super Bowl XXXV]." Super Bowl-bound?

"We're definitely capable of getting there," McAlister said. "If we continue to dominate, we'll have a full head of steam going into the playoffs."

This will be Burnett's first trip to the postseason since he played with the 1994 Browns, who beat New England before losing at Pittsburgh. He doesn't want a short visit.

"We're not going to the playoffs just to play one game," he said. "We're in the playoffs, but right now we have to keep the hammer down and stay focused. We're having much more fun with this team than I did [in 1994]."

January football was the lure that got Burnett back this season. It was also the hook that helped bring in defensive tackle Tony Siragusa - invaluable in the team's top-ranked run defense - from an acrimonious training camp holdout last summer.

"I called him every day, saying `You don't want to miss this,' " Burnett said. "Our days in the league are numbered. We might as well go for the golden goose all we can."

In Baltimore, playoff football is back.