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BALTIMORE — There were forgettable moments of chaos and sloppiness, yet all were dispelled by the bigger-picture view for the Baltimore Ravens after manufacturing a gritty victory that clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2003.
Despite a bruised right throwing hand that sidelined quarterback Steve McNair and despite some alternately outstanding and shaky displays from backup Kyle Boller, the Ravens are headed back to the postseason after dispatching the Cleveland Browns with a 27-17 victory Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
â€œBeautiful day, making the playoffs,â€ Ravens coach Brian Billick said. â€œThatâ€™s step one.â€
With Boller engineering two late scoring drives, including a career-long 77-yard touchdown strike to rookie wide receiver Demetrius Williams, the Ravens broke a 17-17 deadlock after squandering a two-touchdown lead.
Plus, the defense sacked former Ravens practice squad quarterback Derek Anderson five times and intercepted him twice while holding the Browns to no third-down conversions on 11 tries.
A relatively subdued locker room was an indicator that Baltimore (11-3) has much grander pursuits in mind than just making the playoffs.
â€œItâ€™s not over,â€ wide receiver Derrick Mason said.
â€œWe canâ€™t be satisfied with just making the playoffs. Weâ€™ve got to have more lofty goals, which we do and thatâ€™s to win the Super Bowl.
â€œGreat, we made the playoffs. Thatâ€™s fine and dandy. If we didnâ€™t expect it, we would be whooping and hollering and high-fiving each other, but coming into the season we expected to make the playoffs. So, our agenda right now is to win the Super Bowl. Nothing less.â€
McNair, who didn’t complete any of his four passes, left the game in the first quarter after Browns middle linebacker Andra Davis accidentally stepped on his hand. Although X-rays were ruled negative and team officials described McNair’s injury as a soft-tissue bruise that has him designated as probable for next weekâ€™s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens opted to not have the three-time Pro Bowl passer return because he had difficulty taking snaps.
"I just thought it was the prudent thing to do," Billick said.
Boller flashed some of his trademark inconsistencies that prompted the Ravens to trade a fourth-round draft pick to acquire McNair, but he also showed the potential that made the Ravens invest a first-round draft pick in him in 2003.
The Ravens had blown a 14-point advantage when Boller delivered a touchdown to Williams with 5:24 remaining in the third quarter. Earlier, he threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to fullback Ovie Mughelli.
â€œEverybody knows life in the NFL is very tenuous when it comes to your backup,â€ Billick said. â€œHe has to be ready to play. I thought Kyle played very well.
â€œHe did some good things. He did some not-so good things, but those big plays are always going to be a factor.â€
Boller fumbled a handoff and threw an interception into heavy traffic in the second quarter to cornerback Leigh Bodden while looking for Williams, prompting veteran teammates to shake their heads.
Boller eventually settled down, though.
â€œYou’ve got to be ready,â€ said Boller, who completed 13 of 21 passes for 238 yards and a 112.8 passer rating. â€œItâ€™s not always going to be pretty, but youâ€™ve got to just keep fighting, calm yourself down and go out there and execute.
â€œYou canâ€™t let the little things bother you. Youâ€™ve got to keep grinding.â€
Meanwhile, the Ravensâ€™ defense had to endure critical injuries in the secondary with cornerback Samari Rolle (shoulder sprain and stinger) and nickel back Corey Ivy (concussion) leaving the game.
The Ravens constantly pressured Anderson and set a franchise season sack record with 52 for the season. However, he did some damage with 23 of 32 accuracy for 233 yards and a pair of touchdown throws to receivers Joe Jurevicius and Braylon Edwards by selectively going after Rolleâ€™s replacement, Evan Oglesby. That allowed Cleveland to overcome a 17-3 deficit.
Anderson completed 13 consecutive passes at one point, but was absolutely futile on third downs and forced interceptions into coverage by cornerback Chris McAlister and safety Dawan Landry.
"I saw the field real well and I had a good idea of what they were doing," Anderson said. "I made pretty good decisions for the most part. They just got me a couple of times."
When told about the third-down accomplishment, something that had only been previously done once by the Ravens, linebacker Bart Scott described it as a deceptive statistic.
â€œThat must mean they had some great plays on first and second down,â€ Scott said. â€œWe know it doesnâ€™t tell the true story.â€
Meanwhile, running back Jamal Lewis gained 109 yards on 22 carries with a seven-yard touchdown run set up by Landryâ€™s 37-yard interception return. Lewis also had a 52-yard burst in the first half up the middle for his longest run of the season.
However, it was Bollerâ€™s heave to Williams that ultimately decided the outcome. The fourth-round draft pick from Oregon sprinted past two defenders on a fly route and hit full stride at the 20-yard line before cutting to his left and diving into the end zone.
"I just wanted to put it up there nice and high for him, let him run underneath it," Boller said.
Boller wasnâ€™t done. With a 24-17 lead, he found wide receiver Mark Clayton for a 42-yard sideline reception that set up a 22-yard field goal from Matt Stover to cap the scoring.
Boller began the game crisply by converting three third-downs during an 85-yard drive that built a 14-3 lead. He completed 5 of 6 passes for 50 yards, including his touchdown throw on a swing pass to Mughelli, along with two runs for 14 yards.
â€œWe knew Kyle would do a good job, heâ€™s definitely capable,â€ center Mike Flynn said. â€œHe hit some huge throws for us when we had our backs against the wall.â€
Although the Ravens have won only one playoff game since winning Super Bowl XXXV with a wild-card win over the Miami Dolphins in 2001, their prospects might be at their brightest since their dominant run six years ago.
â€œThe beauty of where we are right now is weâ€™re in the dance,â€ middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. â€œAnybody in this dance has a chance to win it all.
â€œIâ€™ve been telling every young kid you will never understand what it feels like until you find yourself in the dance. Now, weâ€™re in and now everybody knows.â€
Added McAlister: â€œItâ€™s like a weight lifted of your back. By the same token, you canâ€™t fall down at this point.â€
What’s left undetermined is the Ravensâ€™ status entering the postseason realm. They currently hold the No. 3 AFC playoff seed behind the Indianapolis Colts.
If the Cincinnati Bengals lose tonight to the Colts, the Ravens will claim their second AFC North division title and they have a shot at the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC and a first-round bye if the Bengals win.
Rooting interests among the Ravens are divided with most of the players wanting the Bengals to win, which would delay Baltimore from winning the division. Linebacker Adalius Thomas quipped that heâ€™s not even going to watch the game.
â€œI think Iâ€™ve got some Christmas shopping to do,â€ he said.
And McNair declined to reveal who heâ€™ll be cheering on tonight: â€œMay the best team win.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland