OWINGS MILLS, Md. The Baltimore Ravens need a miracle to get into the playoffs.
Not only must the Ravens defeat the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers today at Heinz Field in their regular season finale, but they also need losses by New England, San Diego, Cleveland, Denver and the New York Jets to qualify for an AFC wild card.
Whatever fate hands the Ravens (7-8) today, it’s a virtual miracle the team is even in the AFC playoff mix going into the final week of the season. The Ravens have exceeded everyone’s expectations. Before the season began, most prognosticators claimed the Ravens would be hard-pressed to win four games.
“Going into the last game still having a playoff possibility however remote whatever the circumstances going into this season, would you take it? The response would be ‘Heck yeah,’” said Ravens coach Brian Billick. “Particularly knowing the players we lost.”
Salary cap cost-cutting forced the Ravens, a 10-6 playoff team in 2001, to unload 27 players including 12 starters. As a result, the Ravens opened this season as one of the youngest teams in NFL history with a total of 19 rookies or first-year players on the roster. They now have 17 first-year players.
That youth doesn’t take into account losing five-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis (shoulder), veteran defensive end Michael McCrary (knee), wide receiver Brandon Stokley (foot) and quarterback Chris Redman (back) to injuries for most of the season.
A win today over the Steelers (9-5-1) would give Billick his fourth straight non-losing season in as many years as Ravens coach.
“Does a team that is 8-8 feel better about itself than a team that is 9-7 and doesn’t make the playoffs?” Billick asked. “Yes, I would like to not have a losing season. That carries some cache for you. But I don’t think they are going to give us any particular playoff points for [8-8]. I’ll check my contract, I don’t think there are any bonuses in there for an 8-8.”
After winning their seventh division title in coach Bill Cowher’s 11 seasons last Monday at Tampa Bay, the Steelers have something to play for today. If Houston upsets Tennessee and the Steelers beat the Ravens, the Steelers would then earn an opening-round bye in the playoffs as the AFC’s No.2 seed.
“I am glad that there is something to be playing for,” Cowher said. “I think I would rather have it be that way.”
The divisional rivals have traded their share of smack talk over the years. Last year, retired Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa suggested that Ravens fans should mug Steelers fans in the rest rooms at Ravens Stadium. Also last year, tight end Shannon Sharpe dubbed Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress “Plexiglas.”
The talk continued following the Steelers’ convincing 31-18 win over the Ravens in Baltimore on Oct. 27, a game in which Burress torched second-year cornerback Gary Baxter for two touchdowns. Baxter said Burress is “not an elite receiver to me, period. That’s the way this whole secondary and this whole team is going to see him.”
When told of Baxter’s comments, Burress asked, “Who is Gary Baxter?” When told Baxter’s uniform number, Burress called Baxter “terrible” and said Chris McAlister, the Ravens’ other starting cornerback, was “cocky.”
In four games against the Ravens, Burress has 22 catches for 359 yards and five touchdowns.
“There is nothing they would like greater than to be able to come into our place and beat us here on our field,” Cowher said. “There is no doubt about that.”