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Ravens serve notice to fellow contenders

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BALTIMORE – For all they had accomplished in 2010, the Baltimore Ravens went into Sunday's showdown with the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints as a team widely defined by its shortcomings.

Halfback Ray Rice(notes), to the chagrin of fantasy players with high draft picks everywhere, hadn't enjoyed the breakout season many had predicted, something largely attributed to lackluster line play. Defensively, Ray Lewis(notes) and friends had experienced some conspicuous breakdowns, narrowly surviving a Monday night meltdown in Houston in the team's most recent outing.

To much of the outside world, it looked as though Baltimore had hit a wall.

Naturally, the Ravens put their heads down and smashed right through it, bullying their way to a 30-24 victory over the Saints at M&T Bank Stadium that re-established their credentials as legitimate championship contenders.

And then they reminded anyone in earshot that when they play the way they did on Sunday, they're a team no opponent will look forward to facing in the playoffs.

"Not us," Pro Bowl pass rusher Terrell Suggs(notes) proclaimed after a victory in which Baltimore dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. "At some point, you're gonna have to play smash-mouth football, and there ain't a team in the business better than we are at that. That's who we are. Wherever the road may take us … if it leads through Foxborough, so be it. If it goes a little bit north and a little bit to the west [to Pittsburgh], so be it. We're ready for whatever lies ahead."

Even after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 22-17 home defeat to the New York Jets pulled Baltimore (10-4) into a tie for first place in the AFC North, the Ravens knew their road might not be an easy one. If the Steelers can win out against the lowly Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns, they'll have the tiebreaker in their favor and will clinch the division and a first-round bye. Baltimore, by beating the Browns and Bengals, would secure a wild-card spot and the No. 5 seed.

Having been similarly positioned in each of coach John Harbaugh's first two seasons – only to power their way to massive road playoff upsets at Tennessee and New England in the process – the Ravens have little doubt they can complete the hat trick.

"This is the time of year where this team comes alive," third-year quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) said. "I think you're starting to see that. Hopefully, you'll see it more the next two weeks and beyond."

The lifeblood for Sunday's scorching of the Saints (10-4) – who now trail the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons (12-2) by two games in advance of next Monday night's rematch and, like the Ravens, look slotted into the No. 5 seed – came from the large men in the trenches and the undersized halfback who slips through the openings they create. The only stat you needed to know about this game was total rushing yards: The Saints had 27; the Ravens, 208.

"That was a statement they wanted to make, and needed to make," Harbaugh said of his offensive linemen. "We got our edge back."

Harbaugh had something to do with that, telling his linemen, tight ends and fullback LeRon McClain(notes) early in the week that they had to get more physical for the team to ignite its dormant rushing attack. When offensive coordinator Cam Cameron reinforced that message by crafting a run-heavy game plan, the blockers responded with enthusiasm. "They put it on their shoulders, point blank," wideout Anquan Boldin(notes) said of the linemen. "I guess they got tired of hearing it from the naysayers. They won the game for us."

Well, not without a bunch of help from the 5-foot-8 dynamo known as "Mighty Mouse."

Rice, who before Sunday had managed just one 100-yard game this season, carried 31 times for 153 yards and a touchdown. He also caught five passes for 80 yards and another TD, despite a defensive game plan explicitly designed to shut him down.

"We were loaded up to stop him," New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. "He just made plays. He got into space and took advantage of us."

Saints linebacker Scott Shanle(notes), who trailed Rice on the halfback's terrific 17-yard touchdown catch of a gorgeous Flacco touch pass that gave Baltimore a 21-7 second-quarter lead, added, "For a lot of us, it was the first time we saw him live. I don't want to say we underestimated him – we knew he's a great player – but seeing it live is different than watching it on film. The quickness, the elusiveness … he's tough to stop."

And when opponents have trouble stopping Rice, vanquishing the Ravens is even tougher. On the third-quarter drive that led to the first of three Billy Cundiff(notes) field goals and a 24-17 Baltimore lead, Rice caught a short screen pass from Flacco and raced down the left sideline for a 32-yard gain, breaking five tackles in the process.

After Drew Brees(notes) responded by driving New Orleans 80 yards for a tying touchdown, Lance Moore's(notes) spectacular 15-yard catch in the left corner of the end zone with 11:34 remaining, Rice ripped off a 50-yard burst up the middle on the Ravens' next offensive play – by far Baltimore's longest rush of the season – to set up Cundiff's 32-yard game-winner.

"I just had to make a guy miss," Rice said. "[The line's] job is to get me one-on-one with guys in space. Anytime I'm one-on-one, I'm going to make it happen."

And any opportunity for Rice to burn off energy is all right by his linemen.

"He's like your annoying little brother," center Matt Birk(notes) said of Rice. "That's seven days a week, too. He's always bouncing around, shaking your hand; I shake his hand about 10 times a day. He's got a bubbly personality. You can appreciate that come December, when you come to work on one of those dog days and need a pick-me-up."

Squandering Rice's best game since his star turn in last year's playoff victory over the Patriots would have been a major downer, especially if it involved a glaring defensive failure at game's end, a theme in prior defeats to the Falcons and Steelers.

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Reggie Bush(notes) and the Saints' backs couldn't get past Ravens defenders.
(Mitch Stringer/US Presswire)

Though Lewis, who gave a stirring Saturday night speech at the team hotel about shared sacrifice and seizing the opportunity to mount a championship run, and his fellow defenders made the Saints one-dimensional, it was still a pretty scary dimension: Brees (29-of-46, 267 yards, three touchdowns) was his usual accurate, unruffled self, and twice he had the ball down three in the final quarter with a chance to tie or win.

To that point, New Orleans had enjoyed its share of good fortune: Wideout Marques Colston(notes) appeared to be the intended receiver on Moore's TD catch, and the Saints recovered a pair of Brees' fumbles on one third-quarter drive that ended with Garrett Hartley's(notes) 47-yard field goal. In the end, however, the Ravens' defense took luck out of the equation.

After Brees took over at his own 4-yard line with 2:51 remaining, the Ravens clamped down and set up a fourth-and-8 from the 17. They finished things off with a flourish, as defensive tackle Haloti Ngata(notes) batted Brees' throw into the air and fellow lineman Cory Redding(notes) intercepted it, setting up a final Cundiff field goal with nine seconds remaining and ending New Orleans' six-game winning streak.

As 71,432 chilly fans celebrated, the Ravens walked off the field feeling very warm and fuzzy about their prospects.

"We ain't dead," Suggs said. "Just think, we haven't lost a game this year by more than five points – and we're just getting started. [Sunday], we showed what everybody expected the whole year. We just went out there and beat one of the premier teams in the NFL, one of the most explosive offenses in the league. We beat the defending champs. That's a statement."

In true Ravens fashion, it wasn't subtle.

THE HIGH FIVE …

In this fantasy-driven, numbers-obsessed era, there's little chance that Tom Brady(notes) won't capture his second MVP award. However, after the Philadelphia Eagles' amazing 38-31 comeback victory over the New York Giants at the New Meadowlands Stadium, I'm more convinced than ever that Michael Vick's(notes) transcendent play has been unmatched in 2010. Down 31-10 on the road against a riled-up rival with half a quarter remaining, only to engineer three touchdown drives and win in regulation (on DeSean Jackson's(notes) 65-yard punt return as time expired) – who does that? "Unreal, dude," said tight end Brent Celek(notes), whose 65-yard touchdown catch on a shrewd mismatch-exploitation by Vick ignited the comeback. With the Eagles (10-4) seemingly headed for the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and having defeated the Falcons without Vick in the lineup, I view them as the team to beat in the conference – and I'm running out of superlatives for their quarterback and his head coach.

Brady, to his credit, did what he needed to do in leading the Patriots (12-2) to a 31-27 victory over the Green Bay Packers, though he was upstaged by 313-pound offensive lineman Dan Connolly's(notes) 71-yard kickoff return late in the first half. Yet the game told us more about Green Bay (8-6), which nearly pulled off the upset despite the concussion-related absence of star quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes). He watched backup Matt Flynn(notes) do a nice job in his first career start before some serious clock mismanagement at game's end. The good news for the Pack: If they can close the season with home victories against the Giants and Chicago Bears, they'd likely enter the playoffs as the No. 6 seed – and travel to Chicago for a third meeting with their NFC North rivals in the first round. Assuming Rodgers is healthy, that's a viable path to the divisional round, which is all Mike McCarthy's team can ask for at this point.

The Jets (10-4) had to sweat out three Ben Roethlisberger(notes) passes to the end zone in the final 30 seconds before securing their 22-17 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field, ending their two-game losing streak and putting them in position to lock up a playoff spot by winning one of their final two games. One of New York's biggest plays was provided by veteran pass rusher Jason Taylor(notes), a Pittsburgh native who burst into the backfield and nailed halfback Mewelde Moore(notes) for an improbable safety with 2:45 remaining. Now we know why coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum gave the longtime Dolphins star a helicopter ride over Manhattan last spring. "Gotta make more plays down the stretch," Taylor wrote afterward (via text), "but that's a good start." I still see the AFC as a four-team race between the Pats, Jets, Steelers (who clinched a playoff spot, even in defeat) and Ravens, regardless of seeds.

The Colts (8-6) scored a must-win, 34-24 victory over the Jaguars (8-6), preventing Jacksonville from clinching the AFC South and taking control of the division. However, don't count out Jack Del Rio's Jags just yet. Indy faces a tough test Sunday in Oakland against the Raiders (7-7) – imagine reading that sentence a few months ago – and then hosts a potentially revived Titans team that ended a six-game losing streak by crushing the Texans on Sunday. However things shake out, it looks as though the AFC South, and not the AFC West, is the second-worst division in football. Who knew?

I suspect that the surgeons who removed Matt Cassel's(notes) appendix 11 days earlier weren't especially thrilled that the Chiefs' quarterback returned to the field on Sunday. But after Kansas City's lifeless performance in San Diego the previous week with backup Brodie Croyle(notes) running the offense – and given the team's nonexistent margin for error – he was understandably motivated to make a hasty return. You know his teammates are grateful after Cassel's smooth performance helped K.C. (9-5) to a 27-13 road victory over the St. Louis Rams. With the Chargers (8-6) a game behind the Chiefs in the AFC West, better positioned via tiebreakers and facing a pair of downtrodden foes (Bengals and Broncos) in the final two weeks, Kansas City likely needs to defeat the Titans and Raiders to make the playoffs.

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

1. That a minority faction of the U.S. Senate had the gall to resort to a filibuster to prevent the passage of a bill designed to extend health benefits to 9/11 first responders – and no, I am not making this up. (A revised version of the bill may pass this week. Either way, the fact that it has taken this long is shameful.)

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Shanahan and McNabb look on as the Redskins dropped their fourth straight game.
(Jose Yau/AP Photo)

2. Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan's sloppy handling of his miscast marriage with quarterback Donovan McNabb(notes). I'm a big believer in Shanahan's coaching ability, and I'm willing to cut him some slack for misjudging the degree to which he and McNabb would mesh when he traded for the longtime Eagles star last April. But it was clear by Halloween that this was a terrible fit, and at that point the coach should have either cut his losses and made the switch to backup Rex Grossman(notes) or sucked it up and tried to win with McNabb while silently resolving himself to a one-and-done arrangement. Instead, the 'Skins announced in mid-November that they'd signed McNabb to a lucrative extension, a deal that turned out to be a $3.5-million Band-Aid the quarterback will pocket as a severance fee before being cut or traded. Then, when Shanahan decided to bench McNabb for Sunday's game against the Cowboys (and for the rest of the season), he did so without informing the six-time Pro Bowl participant until Friday, adding to the humiliation. Come to think of it, Shanahan didn't handle the organizational incompatibility with now-suspended defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth(notes) very well, either. Translation: Few franchises are in such desperate need of a strong offseason as the Redskins – and Shanahan's return to coaching has not gone nearly as smoothly as either he or owner Dan Snyder envisioned.

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

Like many in the NFL community, I was shocked by Sunday’s revelation, courtesy of Fox’s Jay Glazer, that Carolina Panthers defensive end Tyler Brayton(notes), while standing on the sideline during last week’s game against the Falcons, decked Atlanta gunner Chris Owens with a forearm to the head. Let’s pause for a moment to consider this: First of all, what Brayton did was more violent and egregious than the much-publicized knee-shot delivered by Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi to Dolphins gunner Nolan Carroll(notes) on the same day. The Jets suspended Alosi without pay for the rest of the season (it was later extended to an indefinite length after GM Tannenbaum said the coach had lied about his role in setting up a human wall of inactive players on the sideline) and fined him $25,000; surely, Brayton would stand to suffer an even harsher punishment. Secondly, this was a blow to the head, an offense which, under the NFL’s newly emphasized crackdown on helmet hits of the past two months, is costing first-time offenders $25,000 a pop. Further, I believe NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had an obligation to make an example out of Brayton and give him a particularly strict penalty to dissuade other would-be bench-area renegades from similarly thuggish behavior.

So what did Brayton get dinged? Fifteen thousand dollars. Say what? In other words, Brayton’s act was deemed less severe than that of a defender who aims for a receiver’s chest but ends up making contact with the player’s neck or head after the player ducks his head and changes the target. It was also apparently regarded as less acute than Alosi’s assault on Carroll, for reasons that are beyond me. I’m not the only one: There have been numerous questions about the league’s lack of consistency in terms of fines for on-field conduct this season, and this is a new level of ridiculousness. The Falcons, according to a team source, are understandably peeved. However, there was one satisfying element of Glazer’s report: Apparently, one NFL team’s institutional use of a human wall to impede the movement of opposing gunners is known as “Pink Floyd” – thus demonstrating the spot-on sensibilities of a certain lyric-altering sports columnist.

TEXT/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

"Never made a big deal out of a record that was started long before I was here and most of the players were here. Road win was important step though, especially being short-handed against playoff contender"
– Text Sunday evening from Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, after his team broke a NFL-record, 26-game road losing streak with a 23-20 overtime triumph over the Buccaneers.

"Tarah Murrey: monster"
– Text Thursday night from fellow Cal volleyball fan and Counting Crows singer/songwriter Adam Duritz, referring to the tour de force performance by the Bears' junior All-American in a sweep of USC in the NCAA semifinals.

"Buzz kill!"
– Text Saturday night from ESPN analyst, volleyball dad and fellow Cal volleyball fan Trent Dilfer(notes) after the Bears lost in the finals to Penn State – the Nittany Lions' fourth consecutive championship.

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