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A year ago, the NFL's No. 6 seeds were lethal.
We watched as the Baltimore Ravens and Eagles gathered themselves down the stretch, fueled by voracious defenses and swelled up with momentum. They chomped through higher seeds on the road, strung together improbable runs, and were stopped only one game from the grandest stage. And one year later, the Ravens appear poised to fill that role again.
With the Dolphins, Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars faltering this week, the Ravens are now in control of their playoff path. If they win their remaining games against the Steelers and Raiders – both on the road – the Ravens will be no worse than the AFC's No. 6 seed in the playoffs. And with Baltimore seemingly building similar momentum to last season's streaking finish, that can't sit well with prospective first-round opponents like the Bengals or Patriots.
That's not to say this is the same Baltimore team as the 2008 edition. The defense has had its moments, but still lacks that nasty, venomous edge that was overflowing in last year's team. There's no denying part of that strut went out the door with defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and linebacker Bart Scott(notes), which coincided with some age setting in with the secondary. But this is still one of the best units in the NFL, quietly ranking second in the league in fewest points allowed, just an eyelash behind Ryan's Jets.
And it's not like the Ravens have suffered like the Steelers, who are suddenly surrendering points by gobs in the fourth quarter. Indeed, the Ravens have allowed only one team in the last eight games – the Packers – to score more than 17. During that span, they've led the league in fewest points allowed, relinquishing an average of only 11.8 per game. But such effort hasn't been as flashy as past years, which were typically laced with monster turnover margins and skyrocketing sack totals. Indeed, the Ravens were tied for 13th in the NFL in takeaways coming into this week, and tied for 24th in sacks.
Those numbers were arguably diminished by the loss of linebacker Terrell Suggs(notes), who missed three games after suffering a right knee injury. Since Suggs has returned, the Ravens have notched eight turnovers and three sacks in their last two games, albeit against the struggling offenses of the Lions and Bears. But the last quarter of the season is chiefly about three things for playoff teams: gaining momentum, remaining healthy and ironing out the last fixable creases in the game plan.
The Ravens were in a similar scenario last season, but on the other side of the ball – tweaking an offense that was going to have to win with a rookie quarterback. One year later, Joe Flacco(notes) has polished himself into a rising young veteran capable of winning games, complementing a solid offensive line, a strong and versatile running game, and a group of possession receivers who can string drives together.
The offense arguably has the fewest worries. And considering the defense still has three big playmakers in Ray Lewis(notes), Suggs and safety Ed Reed(notes) – guys who thrive in the postseason – that may actually bode well for Baltimore. Whatever the case, the Ravens are once again picking up steam, and are in control as the final quarter of the season comes to a close. It has a familiar feel, and for other teams fighting for their own playoff positioning, not facing the Ravens might be as important as anything else.
Here are some of Week 15's other winners and losers …
Josh Cribbs returned two kickoffs for scores against Kansas City
(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
• Cleveland Browns wideout Josh Cribbs
Why teams kick to this guy, I'll never understand. His two touchdowns on kickoff returns Sunday give Cribbs eight in his career, which is an NFL record. I'm not sure what else Cribbs has to do to prove he deserves a robust long-term extension. Other teams are flat-out afraid of him touching the ball. He's got the size and strength for a larger role in the conventional offense, too.
• Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes)
Not only did he have a monster game against the Green Bay Packers (503 passing yards and three touchdowns), he completed a game-winning scoring pass as time expired. The moment was every bit as impressive as what Brett Favre(notes) did to the 49ers in Week 3. One can only hope this put to bed the lingering questions about Roethlisberger not playing in the Baltimore game. He's one of the league's elite quarterbacks, and he's doing it without an upper-echelon offensive line. He is not the problem right now.
• Cleveland Browns running back Jerome Harrison(notes)
It's hard to upstage Cribbs when he plays like he did on Sunday, but Harrison did it, rushing for 286 yards and three touchdowns. That's third all time on the single-game rushing yardage list, and only 11 yards from what would have been a record. The game came from almost nowhere, considering Harrison had never run for more than 246 yards in an entire season. Now it's a bit more understandable why the team has had moments where it thought Harrison would be Jamal Lewis'(notes) successor.
• Oakland Raiders coach Tom Cable
Quarterback JaMarcus Russell(notes) gets a tip of the cap for leading the game-winning drive against Denver, but Cable is the big winner. Grouped with eyebrow-raising wins over Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, it almost certainly locks him in for another season with this franchise. The team is still inconsistent from game to game, but you can see that when it plays with confidence, Oakland is capable of beating good teams. Getting Michael Bush(notes) and Darren McFadden(notes) more involved is a must in the last two weeks.
Philip Rivers and the Chargers clinched the AFC West after beating the Bengals 27-24. Rivers passed for 308 yard and three touchdowns.
(Lenny Ignelzi/AP Photo)
• The San Diego Chargers
The win over the Bengals puts them in the driver's seat for the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and will help them get some much-needed rest down the stretch. Defensively there is still work to do, but I'm not sure there is a better offensive team in the AFC right now. Quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) deserves to be in the MVP conversation.
• Philadelphia Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson(notes)
The defense deserves a mention, but I've said it once and I'll say it a million times: the worst job in the NFL is whoever has to line up opposite Jackson each week. The guy is simply a terror. In terms of the defensive coordinators who face the Eagles, he's like a 5-foot-10 Randy Moss(notes). You start your game plan with how you'll deal with him and then work from there. You have to wonder if Jackson's presence might lengthen Donovan McNabb's(notes) career in Philadelphia.
• The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense
For a week, the unit looked like the late-1990s edition, forcing five turnovers and consistently keeping Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) off balance. It was a ray of light in a three-week run that has been more competitive than any other stretch this season. That's the good news. The bad news is Tampa Bay is going to have to finish the season against New Orleans and Atlanta, so we'll find out if the recent grit is legitimate.
• Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub(notes)
He surpassed 4,000 passing yards for the season and keeps racking up big games, despite no running game. His 367 yards against St. Louis marked the eighth time he has thrown for 300 yards or more in 2009. It was also the seventh time he has notched a quarterback rating of better than 100. There's no doubt he'll receive that $10 million option bonus in March.
• The Atlanta Falcons defense
The Falcons battled all day and carried a sputtering offense, sacking the Jets' Mark Sanchez(notes) twice and picking him off three times. Jets running back Thomas Jones(notes) got little breathing room as well. Some of the defensive backups are getting valuable reps in games that will help this team mature down the road. With Atlanta showing some grit through injuries, you have to believe this is a season where some character is being built.
• The Kansas City Chiefs offense
The offense was every bit as good as the defense was bad. The line did a solid job and quarterback Matt Cassel(notes) was poised. Some of the skill position players on this team promise a brighter 2010. I don't know how many great years Chris Chambers(notes) has left, but he looks like he has been reborn as a playmaker. Between Chambers, Dwayne Bowe(notes) and Jamaal Charles(notes), there is plenty to build on going forward.
• The Tennessee Titans
The further you get away from that 0-6 start, the more you think this is one of the better AFC teams out there. Then again, this 7-1 stretch has included only one win over a likely playoff team (Arizona). We'll see if this is truly a playoff-caliber team on Friday against San Diego. But with the defense healthy and forcing turnovers, and Vince Young(notes) making plays again, Tennessee has to be cursing those first three games of the season, which were lost by a combined 13 points.
• The New England Patriots
They needed to get past last week's negativity in the worst way, and they did it with a win. Granted, it was ugly, and Tom Brady(notes) has now put up four straight games where he has had some shaky stretches. But the upside is the Patriots took back a two-game lead in their division and would need a total collapse in the next two weeks to miss the postseason. The six sacks and overall pressure exhibited were positive signs, too. This is a team with a chance to improve and go into the playoffs with momentum.
• Arizona Cardinals running back Beanie Wells
You could see Sunday's big game coming, with Arizona hoping to get the running game into a groove down the stretch and Detroit's run defense being amongst the worst in the league. The more I watch Wells, the more I'm sure he will ultimately be the best running back from the 2009 NFL draft – so long as he cures his fumbling issues and stays healthy. His combination of power, size and footwork is special.
• The Denver Broncos
How the Broncos couldn't take advantage of a Charlie Frye(notes)-/JaMarcus Russell-led Raiders team is beyond me. The inconsistency of the offense aside, championship-level teams don't surrender a game-winning drive to the Raiders. From the 32-yard pass interference penalty to Russell's 11-yard pass on fourth-and-10, Denver couldn't finish the game in its backyard. With a game at Philadelphia still on the schedule, I can't see the Broncos getting to 10 wins, and I'm not sure that 9-7 gets them into the playoffs.
• Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith
General manager Jerry Angelo came out Sunday and said nothing has been decided in terms of Smith's job security – not exactly a ringing endorsement. Then again, it's not as if Smith deserves one. The 31-7 loss to Baltimore was an embarrassment, and Angelo cannot be happy about quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) getting off to such a poor start in Chicago. If Angelo's job is safe, I think someone on the coaching staff will pay. And if it's not offensive coordinator Ron Turner, then it will be Smith. Or it could be both.
• San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith
His three interceptions dropped the 49ers into an inescapable hole. And his recent bouts of inaccuracy – he has completed less than 55 percent of his passes in three of his last five games – give pause. It's vital that he bounces back in San Francisco's final two games, as there is still no guarantee there won't be an effort to create competition at quarterback. If Smith can't dominate the sorry secondaries of Detroit and St. Louis to finish the season, his grasp on the starting job will be an offseason topic.
• Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck
It's hard to believe such a promising season could go so wrong for Hasselbeck, particularly after he looked like an All-Pro in the preseason. But he has been banged up all year, and the punishment will endure through the last two games. But Sunday's four-interception effort was the first time I've looked at him and wondered how many good years he has left. I think the clock will be winding down soon.
Mark Sanchez had three interceptions in a 10-7 loss to the Falcons.
(Seth Wenig/AP Photo)
• New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez
He had a few bright spots in his first sub 40-degree game, but his three interceptions were costly. Maybe the upside is that in strong wind, his arm strength wasn't really an issue. He's got the tools to play in rough conditions. His decision making is still an issue, and that has kept the offense from expanding over the course of the season. There is plenty to work on in the offseason.
• The Chiefs defense
Allowing 351 rushing yards is downright embarrassing, particularly when it comes against the Browns and Jerome Harrison. The defense looked slow and undisciplined. There was bad tackling and bad angles from start to finish. Having defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey(notes) on the field would have helped, but this unit looks like it needs some wholesale changes.
• The Miami Dolphins
They have winnable home games remaining against Houston and Pittsburgh, but I have to believe this is the loss that crushes Miami's playoff hopes. This will be the one that stings most, with the season likely sealed on Chad Henne's(notes) interception in overtime. And it has got to be alarming that Ricky Williams(notes) has fumbled four times in his last 52 touches.
• The Buffalo Bills
Once again, they played tough in a loss, but that goes only so far. If anything, we saw why the quarterback position is such a worry, particularly when Trent Edwards(notes) came in for one series and was shelled and knocked out of the game. I don't see how the Bills go into next season with either Edwards or Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) as their starter. Then again, I don't know how the Bills could plug a rookie behind this offensive line.
• The Detroit Lions quarterbacks
It doesn't matter who is under center – there are going to be turnovers from whoever is throwing the football. Moreover, I'm not sure I would want either Daunte Culpepper(notes) or Drew Stanton(notes) in the fold next season. Neither appears to be a viable backup right now. And I doubt either is going to make Matthew Stafford(notes) better, either by pushing him or offering advice.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: The crazy four tips that led to Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis'(notes) first-quarter interception of Tennessee's Vince Young. If you want to see how a tip drill pays off, pay attention to Miami safety Gibril Wilson's(notes) excellent effort at directing the ball backward as he's going out of bounds. This is how great practice leads to turnovers.
The Rams wore throwback jerseys honoring the 1999 Super Bowl championship team, but lost to Houston 16-13.
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Loved: The Los Angeles Rams' uniforms that were donned in St. Louis on Sunday. I still love them. I immediately think of Henry Ellard and Eric Dickerson when I see them.
Loathed: Tom Brady's first-quarter interception against Buffalo. You won't see Brady throw bad interceptions often, but this one qualifies. He tried to squeeze the pass to Wes Welker(notes), who was clearly bracketed on the play, and ended up putting it right into the gut of linebacker Paul Posluszny(notes). Reggie Corner(notes) and Marcus Stroud(notes) dropped potential interceptions, so Brady's day could have been a far worse.
Loved: Vince Young's perfect 22-yard touchdown pass to Justin Gage(notes) against Miami. Young, who later connected again with Gage for a pretty 21-yard score, looks like a different player. He is throwing passes with touch and accuracy and his body language exudes confidence. He's fun to watch again.
Loathed: Hearing Dan Fouts call Miami head coach Tony Sparano "Tony Soprano." Fouts paused before making the mistake, making it seem like he was caught up on the name. Too much HBO?
Loved: Seeing Patriots receiver Randy Moss bounce back so well after last week's adversity. He made a pair of fantastic toe-tapping catches, including a first-half touchdown. The Patriots lined up behind Moss and he showed why this weekend. They might not be a Super Bowl-caliber team with him, but I know they aren't a Super Bowl team without him.
Loathed: Seeing the Titans pull Chris Johnson off the field inside the 10-yard line yet again. The Titans didn't covert on the second-quarter drive and kicked a field goal. I will never understand why you take the most dangerous player on your team off the field in that situation. And it's not like Johnson isn't a tough runner.
Loved: The perfect 65-yard touchdown pass from Mark Sanchez to Braylon Edwards(notes). I had to admit, when I saw the deep pass and how wide open Edwards was, I instinctively winced, thinking Edwards was going to drop it.
Loathed: Browns punter Reggie Hodges(notes) failing to get on the ball for a safety when an errant snap sent the football into his own end zone. When you watch the play, Hodges actually looks like he's jogging at one point and looking back at the defense, instead of falling on the ball or scooping it out of the end zone. He never really even gets close to the ball before Kansas City jumped on it for a touchdown. Terrible play.