- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2005

The Baltimore Ravens need a whole lot of help to make the AFC playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

The Ravens’ slim playoff hopes hinge on whether they can beat the Miami Dolphins in the regular-season finale today at M&T; Bank Stadium while (a) the Buffalo Bills lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers, (b) the Denver Broncos lose to the Indianapolis Colts and (c) the Jacksonville Jaguars either lose to or tie the Oakland Raiders.

“It does look bleak,” Ravens two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister said. “We need three teams to lose. It’s almost like playing the lottery.”

The Ravens (8-7) started talking Super Bowl as soon as they opened training camp in late July. That confidence was buoyed by the fact that the Ravens were the third-youngest team in the league and last season won the AFC North with a 10-6 record — their first division title.

Since then, star running back Jamal Lewis’ legal problems, key injuries, and the NFL’s 31st-rated offense probably took care of all dreams the Ravens had of being in Jacksonville, Fla., for Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb.6.

“That’s life,” coach Brian Billick said. “Those expectations were well-founded and we certainly can’t back off of those now. That’s what we thought of ourselves and, I thought, rightfully so. A lot of things have happened since then, and we still have that potential. So right now to talk about unfulfilled seasons, whether it’s good or bad, underachieving, overachieving, is all premature.”

It’s going to be difficult for the Ravens not to scoreboard watch today. The AFC North champion Steelers (14-1) kick off at the same time at Buffalo (9-6). The Steelers, who have secured homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, likely will hold out stars like running back Jerome Bettis (ankle), linebacker Clark Haggans (groin), cornerback DeShea Townsend (hand) and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (ribs) and possibly wide receiver Plaxico Burress (hamstring) and linebacker Kendrell Bell (groin).

Yet Ravens players are confident their division rivals will not rest any players heading into the playoffs. The Denver-Indianapolis and Jacksonville-Oakland games start later.

“I don’t think they will,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was named to his first Pro Bowl this season with a team-leading 9 sacks. “I think [Steelers coach] Bill Cowher has a championship-caliber team, and no one is resting themselves for the playoffs.”

The Ravens won’t need to watch the scoreboard if they don’t beat the Dolphins (4-11). Miami has won two straight and is 3-3 under interim coach Jim Bates. The Dolphins have hired former LSU coach Nick Saban to take over next season.

Dolphins third-string quarterback Sage Rosenfels, a former backup with the Washington Redskins, will make his first career start today in place of injured A.J. Feeley.

One game in particular — a shocking a 27-26 home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec.5 — really crippled the Ravens’ playoff chances. In that game, the Ravens surrendered 24 fourth-quarter points after leading 20-3 heading into the final quarter. If the Ravens would have won that game, their playoff situation would be much better since they hold the tiebreaker over the Bills and would have been a game better than the Jaguars with one very winnable game left.

“Any team that comes ready to play can beat anyone,” Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller said. “Each game needs to be played as your last. For us, this is our last for now.”

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