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In the midst of the best start in franchise history, the Ravens (8-2) have designs on more than just claiming their first AFC North title since 2003 and returning to the postseason after a two-year absence.
Earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is atop the Ravensâ€™ agenda.
Baltimore is only one game behind the Indianapolis Colts (9-1) for the top record in the AFC, and owns a tiebreaker advantage over the third-seeded San Diego Chargers (8-2). Currently, the New England Patriots (7-3) and Denver Broncos are the fourth and fifth seeds.
â€œI know that teams I played on that went to the Super Bowl never panicked no matter what happened because we knew what we were capable of,â€ said defensive end Trevor Pryce, who claimed two Super Bowl rings with the Denver Broncos. â€œAnd I see that with this team.â€
If the regular season ended today, the Ravens would be assured of a first-round bye and hosting the highest-seeded wild-card winner in an AFC divisional playoff at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore has won four games in a row since Brian Billick assumed offensive coordinator duties and has built a three-game advantage in the AFC North.
However, since there are six games remaining on the schedule, thereâ€™s a lot of work to be done before the team can begin making reservations for Miami, the site of this year’s Super Bowl.
â€œWe’ve not done anything yet," Billick said Monday.
"Certainly we’ve put ourselves in position where there’s potential for that, and that’s exciting. But regardless of how well we play, it will take until the last game of the season for the playoff picture to be set. That’s a long, long way off for us."
Following a 6-10 campaign last season that nearly cost Billick his job, complacency wouldnâ€™t appear to be a dangerous obstacle. That doesn’t mean the Ravens are afraid to think big, though.
â€œOur destiny is in our hands,â€ linebacker Bart Scott said following a 24-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday where the team overcame a sloppy first half marred by four false-start penalties and seven rushing yards. â€œThis places us one step closer to getting to the playoffs.
â€œWeâ€™re not trying to grow to win a division. Weâ€™re trying to grow to do something so much greater than that, the goal all teams have. I wonâ€™t mention it.â€
Beyond merely qualifying for the playoffs, though, the Ravens have a legitimate shot at an easier postseason road than the one they traversed in 2000 on their way to winning Super Bowl XXXV over the New York Giants. That year, the Ravens won a wild-card playoff over the Denver Broncos before toppling the Tennessee Titans on the road in an AFC divisional playoff and beat the Oakland Raiders on their turf in the AFC title game to make it to the Super Bowl.
"They’re very cognizant," Billick said. "I don’t mind them thinking, ‘What would it be like to have home-field advantage? What would it be like to have a bye?’ But not to the point where you’re looking ahead."
The Ravensâ€™ immediate focus is centered squarely on the challenge of playing two divisional opponents in 10 days as they host the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium before a Thursday night game at Cincinnati.
"The fact that they’re division games, and what they represent, they’re huge," Billick said. â€œItâ€™s going to be a challenge.â€
The Ravens have made nearly every game interesting lately with consecutive comebacks from halftime deficits. They trailed the Tennessee Titans 26-7 after two quarters before scoring 20 unanswered points, and outscored the Falcons 24-3 after halftime after falling behind 7-0.
Against the Falcons, Baltimore got hefty contributions from all three phases as running back Jamal Lewis rushed for three touchdowns, the defense sacked Falcons quarterback Michael Vick five times and return specialist B.J. Sams set up two critical scores with electrifying runbacks.
â€œIf weâ€™re going to the Super Bowl, we have to do what we did: get contributions from everyone,â€ center Mike Flynn said.
After the Ravens struggled in the first half, they ran into the locker room to the sound of boos. Billick scolded fans for their reaction to a 7-2 team that was only down one touchdown.
â€œItâ€™s not fun, thereâ€™s part of you that wonders, â€˜What do you have to do?â€™â€ Billick said. â€œI understand the frustration, but it doesnâ€™t help.â€
Billickâ€™s sympathies with fans who want to see the team perform more consistently doesnâ€™t extend to anyone considering repeating the long-held regional tradition of making extra money by selling their tickets to Steelers fans.
â€œAt 8-2 and the way weâ€™re going right now, if the guy next to you sold his ticket to some Steelers fan,â€ Billick said, â€œheâ€™s pretty much showed his colors.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland