BALTIMORE — Inside the Baltimore Ravens’ victorious locker room, veteran middle linebacker Ray Lewis knotted his tie and donned his fedora before cracking a big smile.
The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year was savoring the moment following a decisive 31-7 win over the struggling Chicago Bears on Sunday at chilly M&T Bank Stadium that propelled the Ravens into a potential collision course with the postseason.
By virtue of six turnovers converted into two dozen points, a career-high four Joe Flacco touchdown passes and their wild-card competitors falling by the wayside, the Ravens (8-6) are now currently in possession of the fifth playoff spot in the crowded AFC.
Now, the Ravens control their own destiny after concluding their home schedule in impressive fashion by dominating an NFC North team for the second week in a row. With two more wins, they’ll clinch a postseason berth.
“We are playing the kind of football that we are used to playing in December,” Lewis said. “As a team, we are putting together a lot of great things. Offensively, we are playing great football. Defensively, we are playing great football.
“It’s a journey, a marathon. If we as a team understand that, we will be OK. Everything we went through early, the ups and downs, is going to help us now. I just like our attitude, the way we practice. The games because easier because we trust each other so much.”
The Ravens are tied with the Denver Broncos in terms of record, but own a head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of a 30-7 win earlier this season in Baltimore.
And they rank one game ahead of six teams with identical 7-7 records: the Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Ravens took a major step forward as they were the lone 7-6 team in the AFC to win this week with Jacksonville, Miami and New York all losing to fall one game behind them.
Every team the Ravens needed to lose cooperated, including the Broncos.
“We can’t expect help from anybody,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Nobody else really cares about your goals and your progress. We definitely want to be in control of our own thing.
“If we eventually get the wild card, you can say things are going the Ravens’ way. Until that happens, you got to play like it’s life and death and our postseason is on the line every game, which it is.”
To make the playoffs, the Ravens need to close out the season with road wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders.
“Hopefully, we’re building momentum at the right time,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. Every week stands on its own. We’re going to come out with a new challenge against our archrivals next week at their place, and that’s going to present its own set of challenges.”
The Ravens immediately signaled that this wasn’t going to be a contest against the self-destructive Bears (5-9) as quarterback Jay Cutler lived up to his reckless reputation with another three interceptions.
Cutler leads the NFL with 25 interceptions, completing just 10 of 27 passes for 94 yards, no scores and a brutally bad 7.9 passer rating.
The Ravens’ four interceptions and two forced fumbles ties a team record for turnovers.
On the heels of a major snowstorm that blanketed the state of Maryland and prevented the Bears from arriving at BWI Airport until less than 24 hours before kickoff, the visitors from the Windy City seemed unprepared to match the Ravens’ intensity.
They were definitely no match for Flacco, who dissected their porous defense on 21 of 29 accuracy for 234 yards and a career-high 135.6 passer rating. He accomplished that feat without two of his top receivers with Mark Clayton and Kelley Washington sidelined with injuries.
Despite the 20-degree wind chill, the Ravens got off to a hot start.
By the fourth quarter, Flacco was able to enjoy the view from the bench and watch backup Troy Smith run out the clock while he took in some encouraging results on the scoreboard.
“I’m not going to lie,” Flacco said. “I saw the scores. The scores are flashing up on the scoreboard the whole game. If you’re looking up at it, you’re going to catch them.”
After Flacco delivered his second touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap, he staked the Ravens to a 14-0 advantage 13 minutes into the game.
And the Ravens built a 31-7 lead after three quarters following kicker Billy Cundiff’s 40-yard field goal for the final margin.
The Ravens are now undefeated in six games this season against teams with losing records.
Including this game and last week’s 48-3 rout over the Detroit Lions, the Ravens have outscored their past two opponents by an impressive margin of 79-10.
“The game looked like one team was playing for something and the other one really wasn’t,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
That statement rings true.
Especially when you look at how the Ravens dismantled the Bears.
On just the fourth play from scrimmage, cornerback Domonique Foxworth read Cutler’s eyes and jumped a pass intended for Devin Aromashodu for his first of two interceptions.
Five plays later, Flacco lobbed a 14-yard pass over the middle to Heap for a touchdown.
“That’s what great teams do,” Foxworth said. “Good teams get turnovers. Great teams convert them.”
Then, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson batted a Cutler pass to himself for a bobbling interception. It was Cutler’s NFL-high sixth red-zone interception.
Johnson saw the play developing to his left in the flat and batted the throw with his right hand before hauling it in.
That set up Flacco’s second touchdown pass to Heap from seven yards out.
"Obviously, the last two games we’ve played well," Heap said. “Defense made some big plays for us today and we were able to capitalize.
“We’ve talked about it over the past few weeks, starting faster. You can talk about it all you want, but the biggest thing is you have to do it."
Cutler was simply awful, and the Ravens’ scouting report on him was deadly accurate.
He’s simply too stubborn and overconfident in his talents, ignoring the risks of his actions.
“He’s a guy we knew we needed to get to,” Johnson said. “He can kill you. He’s such an aggressive guy.
“He’s such a risk-taker that if you get after him, he’s going to force plays. We got some picks. He likes to sit back there and do his thing.”
The Bears’ lone score came on a 49-yard punt return by Earl Bennett, who caught a Sam Koch kick on the fly and accelerated up the right sideline.
Although the Ravens squandered a chance to extend their lead when Cundiff missed a 30-yard field goal toward the end of the first half following a high snap from Matt Katula, they came out on fire in the second half.
Flacco’s spiral found wide receiver Demetrius Williams for a 32-yard touchdown during the opening series of the third quarter.
Seldom utilized, Williams timed his leap perfectly to score between cornerback Charles Tillman and safety Al Afalaya while Tillman was committing an obvious pass interference penalty. It was his first touchdown since October of last year.
After reserve defensive back Cary Williams ripped the football out of rookie Johnny Knox’s hands and David Tyree recovered, Flacco connected with veteran Derrick Mason for an 18-yard touchdown pass.
The Bears were down 28-7 before their offense could run a single play.
This game breaks a run of seven consecutive weeks where every win was followed by a defeat.
After beginning the season with three wins in a row, the Ravens are now on their first winning streak since September.
Following the game, the players immediately broached the conversation about the Steelers (7-7) who won a dramatic game over the Green Bay Packers on a last-season touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger.
“I steered away from it,” Harbaugh said. “The players brought it up. They know the schedule. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses, we have to win.”
Heading into next week’s pivotal showdown with the Steelers at Heinz Field, the Ravens’ timing as far as improvement is impeccable.
“It’s probably going to be the toughest game of our season to win,” Suggs said. “It should be fun.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.