The Ravens clinched the fifth playoff berth in team history, but they did it in a way unknown in this era of Baltimore football.
Realizing they had to win to get in - the New England Patriots had won about 20 minutes before kickoff - the Ravens completed a surprising regular season by riding a big-play rookie quarterback to a 27-7-victory yesterday over the Jacksonville Jaguars before an elated 71,366 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Joe Flacco threw for a season-high 297 yards as the Ravens (11-5) continued to surpass expectations in head coach John Harbaugh's first season, earning the final AFC wild-card spot by routing the lowly Jaguars (5-11). As the sixth seed, the Ravens open the playoffs Sunday afternoon at the Miami Dolphins (11-5), the AFC East champions.
While many will make the link to the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl season because the title game will again be played in Tampa, Fla., this is a new chapter for the team.
Before Harbaugh arrived, it had been a dominating defense that willed the Ravens to the postseason. But on an unseasonably warm December afternoon, it was Flacco who strong-armed the resilient Ravens into the playoffs, a notion that seemed unlikely for a team that finished 5-11 last season.
Flacco saved one of his biggest games for the Ravens' biggest game of the year, producing a season-best five throws of more than 20 yards and completing 73.9 percent of his passes, tying a season high.
Asked whether he had paused to feel the reality of becoming the 10th NFL rookie quarterback to lead his team to the playoffs, Flacco flashed a big smile.
"Hopefully, I'll be able to stop and look around and say, 'Is this real?' five weeks from now," Flacco said, referring to the Super Bowl on Feb.1. "I haven't done that yet, and I'm not really planning on doing that until then."
Flacco spoke last week about the need to put the Jaguars away early, and he backed up those words.
After the Jaguars jumped ahead 7-3 late in the first quarter, Flacco directed the Ravens to touchdowns on the next three series, marching them on drives of 78, 77 and 71 yards. Delivering a big play on each one, he completed 12 of 13 passes on those series for 192 yards (he hadn't passed for more than 149 yards in any of his previous three games), all of which put the Ravens ahead 24-7 at halftime.
"He's exceeded a lot of people's expectations. But he hasn't exceeded ours," wide receiver Derrick Mason said of Flacco. "We knew what we had in a quarterback. He's playing pretty well. This is when we need him to play even better going down to Miami."
On the Ravens' first touchdown series, Flacco converted two third downs with a 13-yard pass to running back Willis McGahee and an 11-yarder to Mason. His biggest pass came when he connected with wide receiver Mark Clayton on the right sideline for 25 yards.
Le'Ron McClain capped the 10-play drive with a 5-yard run that gave the Ravens a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.
On the first play of the second touchdown drive, Flacco threw a 39-yard pass down the left sideline to Mason. McGahee finished off the eight-play series with a 13-yard score, running behind pulling guard Chris Chester.
Then, after Ravens safety Ed Reed made his seventh interception in six games - he added another in the fourth quarter - which included a lateral to defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, the Ravens took over at their 29-yard line with 2:05 left in the first half.
Flacco went 3-for-3 for 60 yards in the hurry-up offense, hitting tight end Todd Heap for completions of 5 and 8 yards before making the best pass of the game. He tossed a high-arcing 47-yarder right over the shoulders of Clayton to the Jacksonville 1-yard line.
McClain's 1-yard plunge staked the Ravens to a 24-7 advantage, which essentially sealed the team's first playoff berth since 2006.
"Joe really threw a really beautiful ball," Clayton said of the 47-yard completion. "He's impressive. He does some really good stuff with the ball. He makes it easy on us."
It was a pivotal performance by Flacco, who hadn't looked as sharp in December.
In his previous two games, he had only three passes of 20 or more yards. Yesterday, he had four in the first half.
Hitting the big play wasn't a surprise for the Ravens.
"Just kind of watching film, their secondary was a little nosy; they like to put their eyes in the backfield," said Clayton, who had four catches for 128 yards. "We felt like we could get behind them a couple of times. We were able to capitalize on that."
What has made the Ravens so dangerous is they haven't had to "dummy down" the playbook for Flacco.
In winning for the ninth time in 11 games, Flacco completed a 16-yard pass off a flea flicker in the second quarter and hit Troy Smith for a 36-yarder after he had received a cross-field lateral from the backup quarterback.
"I think Joe played a winning game," Harbaugh said. "Anytime you make big plays on offense, those are the kinds of plays that make a difference in a game."
Flacco left with 5:48 left in the game, walking off the field to a loud ovation. Moments later, he heard a familiar chant.
Just like the season opener, fans serenaded him with the words, "Let's go, Flacco."
"All that stuff is crazy," Flacco said. "It's been great, but now we've just got to continue to prove that we're a Super Bowl team and that we're the best team in the NFL."
Next weekend's matchups
Falcons (11-5) at Cardinals (9-7), 4:30 p.m., chs. 11, 4
Colts (12-4) at Chargers (8-8), 8 p.m., chs. 11, 4
Ravens (11-5) at Dolphins (11-5), 1 p.m., chs. 13, 9
Eagles (9-6-1) at Vikings (10-6), 4:30 p.m., chs. 45, 5