After the Ravens had secured their first playoff berth in three seasons, players in their locker room were cringing more than celebrating.
Without injured quarterback Steve McNair and a great deal of execution for most of the game, the Ravens pulled away for a 27-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns yesterday at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens' seventh win in eight games tied the team record for their earliest clinching, matching the time their 2000 Super Bowl championship team earned its spot in Week 15.
But that's where the Super Bowl comparisons ended yesterday.
Forced to overcome three turnovers and some shoddy secondary play, the Ravens relied on the big arm of backup quarterback Kyle Boller and a clutch defensive effort to stay in the hunt for a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
"Winning cures everything," linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "If it doesn't cost you, you don't have the pain of regret. We know that some of the mistakes we did make, they will cost us later, so we want to correct that."
The biggest scare came on the Ravens' sixth offensive play, when 254-pound linebacker Andra Davis stepped on McNair's throwing hand after the quarterback had been knocked to the ground.
Though X-rays were negative - and McNair later said he expects to play Sunday - the Ravens stuck with Boller, who kept the game interesting, whether it was fumbling, falling without being hit or throwing deep downfield.
But Boller proved to be the difference in the end, hitting rookie Demetrius Williams for a 77-yard touchdown with 5:24 left in the third quarter. The longest touchdown pass of Boller's rocky four-year career broke a 17-17 tie, and the Ravens never looked back.
"The person I am most proud of today is Kyle," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "When he hit those plays, it makes me feel good for him because I know the adversity he went through."
As for the playoffs, heading into tonight the Ravens (11-3) are the AFC's No. 2 seed, one game behind the San Diego Chargers (12-2) and a half game ahead of the Indianapolis Colts (10-3). If the Colts beat the Cincinnati Bengals tonight, the Ravens would clinch the AFC North but drop behind Indianapolis to the No. 3 seed because the Colts hold a tiebreaker edge.
"Obviously, you're going to watch the games because there are some things that can help us out," tight end Todd Heap said. "But they don't help us out unless we win our games. That's the focus that's got to come first: taking care of our job and what we have to do. What is in our hands is at Pittsburgh."
Heap was among a handful of Ravens who smiled one moment and winced the next.
Heap was limping because of a thigh bruise. Cornerback Samari Rolle (shoulder sprain and stinger) had his left arm in a sling. Nickel back Corey Ivy (concussion) and left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (hyperextended toe) also were moving around slowly.
None of the injuries was considered serious, a team official said.
"Every team when they show up in training camp, their first goal is making the playoffs. That's the first step, but only the first step," coach Brian Billick said. "It's significant when you can do it with your backup quarterback, backup corner and backup nickel. We said the depth of this team was going to be important from the get-go, and it showed up today."
The Ravens jumped out to a 17-3 lead on a 7-yard touchdown run by Jamal Lewis and a 9-yard touchdown catch by fullback Ovie Mughelli.
The Browns (4-10) came back to score twice during a streak of 13 straight completions by quarterback Derek Anderson, a former sixth-round pick by the Ravens who was making his second career start.
Anderson cut into the deficit with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Joe Jurevicius and tied the game at 17 in the third quarter with a 14-yard throw to Braylon Edwards.
Then, three plays after that last Cleveland touchdown, Boller connected with Williams for a 77-yard touchdown. He later set up the field goal that sealed the Ravens' sixth home win with a 42-yard throw to Mark Clayton, who made a swift over-the-shoulder catch.
"I like to wing it; I like to throw it downfield," said Boller, who finished 13-for-21 passing for 238 yards. "Whenever I have an opportunity to throw it downfield, I'm going to take advantage of it. If I get my guy, I'm going to let it go."
After the Browns tied the game at 17, the Ravens' defense buckled down, too. On Cleveland's final five drives, the Ravens held the Browns to 23 total yards, giving up one first down and making one interception.
"We had a talk about it on the sidelines, and all we were doing was not having fun," said Thomas, who tied Terrell Suggs with a team-high nine tackles. "When we have fun, we hit people, fly around and talk a little junk. That's our style, and we weren't doing it at first."
Despite all the playoff implications on the line, the Ravens seemed to be off their game.
Boller threw an interception, fumbled once and bobbled other snaps. Lewis lost the ball in Cleveland territory. And Suggs tried to pick up a fumble to score a touchdown rather than falling on the ball near the Browns' end zone, costing the Ravens a turnover.
The Ravens know a similar effort probably won't win at Pittsburgh, which has won five of its past six games.
"It's good to know that we're in the playoffs, but we still want to finish off the season the right way," said Lewis, who had 109 yards rushing. "We haven't peaked yet. We haven't played our best football, but we're on our way."