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OWINGS MILLS — Before the clock strikes midnight to launch a new year, the Baltimore Ravens hope they’ve added an exclamation point to punctuate their resurgent season.
Beyond an attempt to grab momentum heading into the playoffs, the Ravens (12-3) are banking on securing a first-round bye with a victory today over the Buffalo Bills (7-8) at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens, who will end the year with an all-black fashion statement at the players’ request, still have designs on becoming the top seed in the AFC. However, they need to defeat the Bills combined with the San Diego Chargers losing at home to the Arizona Cardinals.
Under that scenario, Baltimore would have an identical record to San Diego but would own the tiebreaker edge due to an Oct. 1 win over the Chargers. However, San Diego is 7-0 at home this season, and Arizona (5-10) is 2-5 on the road and won’t have quarterback Matt Leinart under center due to a shoulder injury.
The consequences of a slip could be costly for Baltimore. If the Ravens lose and the Indianapolis Colts defeat the Miami Dolphins, Baltimore would squander its No. 2 seed in the AFC and fall back to No. 3 behind the Colts because of a superior record amongst common opponents.
If that scenario unfolds, it would mean no first-round bye and a potential playoff game next Saturday.
â€œWeâ€™ve got to finish things out,â€ Ravens coach Brian Billick said. â€œThereâ€™s no doubt about what weâ€™ve got to do.â€
For veterans like defensive end Trevor Pryce, a one-week vacation would go a long way toward mending creaky bones and joints. Plus, it would buy All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden more time to heal up after hyperextending his left big toe and missing last weekâ€™s 31-7 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers along with todayâ€™s start with Adam Terry filling in again at left tackle.
â€œIâ€™m old,â€ Pryce said regarding the bye. â€œI need it.â€
The Ravensâ€™ recent history suggests that a bye would be invaluable. Following a bye after a 4-2 start, the Ravens went on a five-game winning streak.
Since being granted several days off by Billick after a 13-7 Thursday night loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens havenâ€™t lost with three consecutive victories by a combined margin of victory of 78-34.
â€œI donâ€™t know about the other teams, but I know we could use it,â€ Ogden said. â€œWe always play well after a bye. The good thing about a bye is that itâ€™s the first round of the playoffs, and then you have a home game and a championship game.
â€œItâ€™s a shorter path. Itâ€™s basically a win. It would be really huge for us to get that. The rest, for older guys like myself, would come in handy.â€
Since the Ravens have established heightened expectations by winning eight of their past nine games, theyâ€™re openly talking about executing another Super Bowl title run.
For a team coming off a disastrous 6-10 campaign that nearly cost Billick his job and prompted questions about the entire direction of the franchise, savoring the feeling of being a prime contender and maintaining their intensity have emerged as top priorities.
â€œBefore the game on Sunday, Ray Lewis came up to me and told me: â€˜We need to indulge in this moment because we never know when we can get it back again,â€™â€ outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. â€œA team like this doesnâ€™t come around all that often.
"Thereâ€™s talent everywhere you look. We definitely have to take advantage of this because we donâ€™t know when itâ€™s going to come around again.â€
The Ravens entered this season with loud whispers about whether new franchise quarterback Steve McNair had enough left in his arm to end years of ineptitude under center in Baltimore. Heâ€™s 25 yards shy of hitting the 30,000 mark today and has helped propel the offense from 28th under former offensive coordinator Jim Fassel to 17th in total offense and 10th in scoring offense under Billickâ€™s play-calling.
Other popular topics of concern included: Could middle linebacker Ray Lewis headline the defense again and regain his leadership role after a divisive offseason? Would Billick command the team’s respect after he was publicly chastised by team owner Steve Bisciotti and retained under a change-or-go mandate?
Lewis has provided leadership and big plays for the NFLâ€™s top-ranked defense thatâ€™s atop the league charts in six of the top dozen defensive categories, including total defense (264.8 yards per contest) and points (12.9).
Meanwhile, Billick has garnered some honorable-mention consideration for NFL Coach of the Year by reinventing himself as a more approachable, less confrontational, hands-on coach even though the award is likely to go the New Orleans Saintsâ€™ Sean Payton or the New York Jetsâ€™ Eric Mangini.
â€œI think everything has happened the way we hoped it would,â€ said fullback Ovie Mughelli, whose emergence as a secondary receiving and running threat coincided with Billickâ€™s dismissal of Fassel along with a revived running game behind Jamal Lewis. â€œI donâ€™t think anyone thought we would come together this fast. We have a lot of chemistry working in our favor now. We just have to keep it up."
However, itâ€™s highly unlikely that the Bills are simply going to lie down or get out of the way of the Ravensâ€™ express train to the postseason.
â€œI expect them to play harder than a lot of teams that are in the playoffs would,â€ Pryce said. â€œSome people are fighting for jobs, some of them are fighting for recognition.
â€œYou donâ€™t want to go into the offseason stinking up the joint. From a professional athlete standpoint, you want to go into next season on a high note.â€
The Bills are eliminated from playoff consideration, but still have a chance to finish .500 under first-year coach Dick Jauron. Buffalo has won four of its past six games with young quarterback J.P. Losman establishing himself as an intriguing prospect.
â€œI know that was important to us the first year, that it was the first non-losing season as unambitious as that sounds,â€ Billick said. â€œTheyâ€™re going to come in plenty motivated. They are going to play loose and confident and have at it. Hopefully, we can match that looseness with our focus and passion.â€
To a man, the Ravens appear to be loose enough judging from the spirited dodge ball games started by Pryce with linebacker Bart Scott and Mughelli taking turns pelting each other in the locker room Thursday, or by the way Pryce boots a soccer ball all over the teamâ€™s training complex.
The Ravens seem to be balancing a sense of fun with a sense of purpose.
â€œI get the feeling in this locker room that weâ€™re not satisfied with just a first-round bye,â€ tight end Todd Heap said. â€œWeâ€™re not satisfied with anything less than going all the way. Weâ€™ve got a few guys who have been through that, but a lot of guys want to make their own name.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland