The Ravens' 24-3 win over the Chargers on Sunday ensured that a Baltimore team will take part in the NFL postseason for the first time since 1977. The win sent the Ravens locker room in to spontaneous celebration and even forced coach Brian Billick to drop his ban on the "p-word."
"You've got to earn the right to get where we are right now," explained Billick. "The thing I was trying to get across to these guys is that accountability says you can't talk like that until you get into the playoffs. Well, we're here now. Now the gloves come off, and why not us?"
The Ravens overwhelmed the Chargers who, at 1-13, are leading only in the race for the top pick in next April's draft. San Diego quarterback Ryan Leaf completed only nine passes for just 64 yards and threw an interception against the league's top-ranked defense, which took the ball away from the Chargers a season-high five times.
By giving up only three points, the Ravens moved closer to breaking the 1986 Chicago Bears' record for fewest points allowed in a season. That Bears squad allowed 187. These Ravens have given up just 138, and only two games remain. That means they can allow the Cardinals and Jets to score their combined average of 35 points in the next two games and still beat the record by almost two touchdowns.
Additionally, the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles were the last team to finish the season with their defense ranked first against both the pass and the run, the Ravens could join them.
Getting to the playoffs isn't enough according to the players in Baltimore's locker room on Sunday. They've won five in a row and have a chance to ride a seven-game winning streak into the postseason.
"We're capable of getting there," cornerback Chris McAlister said of the Ravens' Super Bowl hopes. "If we continue to dominate, we'll have a full head of steam going into the playoffs. Why not us?"
Players such as left tackle Jon Ogden and middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who were a part of the Ravens' first draft class in 1996, were euphoric. "Rome wasn't built overnight," said Lewis. "I've been on the down side of it. I've been here when we were just building and we had all these free agents. Now, we are one of those teams everybody has to watch out for."
One more indicator of Baltimore's ability to win in January is their offense, which has become multi-dimensional with the development of rookie running back Jamal Lewis and the emergence of a big-play tandem in the last month. Receiver Qadry Ismail and quarterback Trent Dilfer have hooked up three times in the last four games for touchdown strikes of longer than 28 yards each.
"The quarterback has to trust the receiver and the receiver has to know exactly what the quarterback is doing," offered Ismail. "I think it just took a little bit to get that flow between Trent and I. It's gotten a lot better week by week."
Up next: at Arizona, 3-11
The Titans should just stop listing quarterback Steve McNair on their weekly injury reports. McNair, who has been listed as questionable more often than not this season with sore toes, thumbs, knees, ankles, ribs and chest, once again defied the odds and medical science to play and play well against the Bengals on Sunday. McNair completed 16 of 26 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns on a sore knee and twisted ankle that had kept him out of practice all week.
"When I looked in the locker room this past week, I'm thinking, 'He isn't going to play,' " wide receiver Yancey Thigpen said. "But if anyone asks I will tell them he will play because I know how tough he is."
Fullback Lorenzo Neal didn't think "tough" was enough to describe the Titans quarterback. "He's like Houdini, a magician," he said. "He does whatever it takes to play. Steve is a tough guy, one of the toughest guys you'll ever see."
The Titans rolled up a season-high 35 points, thanks to McNair and his receivers, Thigpen and Carl Pickens, who've battled hamstring injuries all season and played together for the first time since Sept. 10 and caught a combined four passes for 142 yards and a touchdown.
"If you have all the guys out there who can play and get the job done, that's important," explained McNair. "If you're fully loaded going to the playoffs, that's a good sign."
For an offense that had scored one touchdown in two previous games, five is an awfully good sign.
Tennessee's 35-3 win put them in a dogfight with the Oakland Raiders for homefield advantage for the playoffs. Both teams are 11-3, but if neither blinks the rest of the way the Titans will host the postseason at Adelphia Coliseum, thanks to having beaten Pittsburgh twice this year and the Raiders having lost in Pittsburgh.
"It's good to know we're already in," said defensive end Jevon Kearse. "Now we've got to continue to put that in the back of our mind and play one game at a time. We need to look forward to Cleveland. We can't look forward to the playoffs, homefield advantage or the Dallas game. None of that matters, just the Cleveland game."
The Titans put the clamps on the top-ranked rushing attack in the NFL. The Bengals went into Sunday's game averaging 185 yards per game but earned just 60, as Corey Dillon was contained. It's not the first time this year the Titans have shut down the top-ranked rushing team. Back in October they held the New York Giants' Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne to only 24 yards combined.
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams challenged middle linebacker Randall Godfrey to keep Dillon in check. Godfrey responded with 13 tackles and keyed the defense, which held Dillon to only 42 yards on 18 carries.
"We talk about knocking people back all the time," offered Williams of his defensive philosophy. "To read is a cuss word for us. We don't believe in reading. We believe in tackling and knocking people off the line of scrimmage."
Up next: at Cleveland, 3-12
The Steelers were eliminated from postseason contention for the third consecutive season after a 30-10 loss at the Giants Sunday. It also took the wind out of the sails of a team that believed they were back among the elite of the AFC.
"It was our worst effort of the season," barked head coach Bill Cowher after the game.
Quarterback Kordell Stewart, who engineered the critical win over the Raiders to keep playoff hopes alive, struggled for the first time in almost two months, tossing an interception into the end zone and running for only eight yards, and 120 of his season-high 224 yards came in the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach.
To make matters worse, running back Jerome Bettis was held to just 39 yards, which placed the game more squarely on the shoulders of Stewart, who suffered a sprained calf against Oakland.
Pittsburgh can place much of the blame on the shoulders of their defense, which was finally effective against the run, but completely helpless against quarterback Kerry Collins. The Steelers held Barber and Dayne to a combined 42 yards, but Collins threw for 333 yards and two touchdowns, torching a pass-defense that was among the best in the AFC.
"This was a playoff game for us and we came out and stunk up the joint," said safety Lee Flowers, who left the game with a sprained knee. "I'm standing on the sidelines late in the game with tears in my eyes. Guys asked me, 'Lee, your knee hurt that bad?' I said, 'No, man, aren't you watching? We're getting our butts kicked out there.' "
Their failure to get back into the postseason might haunt them, because this season marks the third consecutive year in which the Steelers started 5-3, only to end up on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
"I still think this team has a world of potential," said cornerback Dwayne Washington. "I'm thinking of next year. If we can end 9-7, it would be a positive from the last two years (6-10, 7-9)."
Up next: Washington, 7-7
Missing out on the postseason is nothing new to the Bengals, who will watch the playoffs like everybody else for the 10th consecutive season. Their 35-3 loss in Tennessee did more than just add another loss to their total, it stunted the growth of a team that believed it was just a play or two from being right there with Tennessee and Baltimore.
"It kind of tells you where you are," said quarterback Scott Mitchell of the loss in Tennessee.
The league's top rushing attack was mostly ineffective against the Tennessee defense. Corey Dillon had just 19 yards through three quarters and finished with only 42 in the Bengals' 60-yard performance. To make matters worse, they earned just four first downs and punted nine times.
"We didn't run the ball that well against them before," said coach Dick LeBeau of the team's early-season matchup. "No one has. We knew we were going to have to throw it some. We wanted to mix it in. We hit some passes, but we couldn't get anything going consistently."
The Bengals' inability to throw the ball has been their Achilles heel all season long. Ranked 31st for most of the season, Cincinnati has thrown for less than 125 yards in nine of 14 games, which has left Dillon as the only real weapon for defenses to key on.
"We did not give ourselves an opportunity to get in this football game. We're not going to play the next one like this," Dillon said.
They'll play the next one without tight end Tony McGee, whose broken ankle in Tennessee will break his string of 117 consecutive starts. They'll also do without middle linebacker Adrian Ross, who suffered a laceration to his left hand, and the Bengals could be without right tackle Willie Anderson, who suffered a high-ankle sprain, and also without cornerback Robert Bean, who sprained his knee.
Cincinnati's defense has become an elixir for struggling offenses this season. Baltimore broke a 27-quarter touchdown-less streak against them in November, Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, who's been ineffective all season, threw for 308 yards against them, and Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart threw three touchdown passes and ran for another as the Steelers scored 48-points, their highest total since 1995.
The Titans rolled up a season-high 443 yards, a season-high 35 points and a season-high five touchdowns.
Up next: Jacksonville, 7-7
Browns coach Chris Palmer had little choice but to chuck his playbook this week in favor of whatever worked. The Browns lost 35-24 to the Philadelphia Eagles, but whatever worked was just fine. Palmer used three quarterbacks on his first drive of the game and uncorked a game plan that had Eagles coach Andy Reid scrambling.
The Browns used wide receiver Dennis Northcutt as a running quarterback and receiver Kevin Johnson as a passing quarterback. They took starter Doug Pederson and rolled him out to either side and he passed for a career-high 309 yards.
Palmer didn't stop there. He used fake reverses, the hook and ladder and every other gimmick in his pocket to score 24 points, a week after being blanked in Jacksonville.
"That was as creative a gameplan as you'll ever see in the NFL," said Reid. "We were just trying to utilize the talent we have," said Palmer of his team, which has lost 12 players to injury.
"I just think the crowd wanted to see something different," said Johnson, in the understatement of the season. "We just changed it up a bit and I think we moved the ball effectively just by changing quarterbacks."
Of course, Palmer had to change things up more than a little bit. He had already lost starting quarterback Tim Couch and his backup, Ty Detmer, to season-ending injuries, and this week lost rookies Spergon Wynn and Kevin Thompson for the remainder of the year. The club was so desperate that they called former Atlanta signal-caller Tony Graziani in from the golf course as extra insurance.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, the defense was burned out from too much time on the field in Baltimore and Jacksonville. They managed to shut down the Philadelphia running game, but couldn't come close to slowing down quarterback Donovan McNabb, who enjoyed a career day with 390 passing yards and four touchdowns.
"The offense came out and played a good game," said defensive end Keith McKenzie. "They've been struggling, they had a lot of things go wrong. They came out and played hard and scored 24 points. I'm proud of what the offense did. We didn't play the way we should have and that's what really hurt us today."
Up next: Tennessee, 11-3