Ravens poised to nail home-field edge for playoffs

For the Baltimore Ravens, about the only thing better than being

home for Thanksgiving is to stay put throughout the AFC

playoffs.

The Ravens (8-3) own the best record in the conference after

their uplifting 16-6 victory over San Francisco on Thursday night.

Playing without star middle linebacker Ray Lewis, Baltimore tied a

franchise record with nine sacks and provided John Harbaugh an

emotional victory in the first NFL game featuring brothers as

opposing head coaches.

Most importantly, the Ravens cleared a major hurdle in their

quest to secure home-field advantage in the postseason leading up

to the Super Bowl.

”That would be pretty good,” quarterback Joe Flacco said.

”Obviously, playing here, we’re pretty tough to beat.”

Being at home in January is more important to Baltimore than any

other team in the NFL. The Ravens are 6-0 at M&T Bank Stadium,

including wins over Pittsburgh (7-3), Houston (7-3), the New York

Jets (5-5) and San Francisco (9-2).

On the road, Baltimore is 2-3. All three losses came against

teams with losing records.

The Ravens made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons

as a wild-card team, but playing every game on the road proved too

difficult an obstacle to overcome. They hope to travel a different

course this time – one that doesn’t require a plane ride.

”We haven’t had a home playoff game since I’ve been here,”

Flacco said. ”It would really be beneficial to get one.”

Sack specialist Terrell Suggs, who had three against the 49ers,

would love the opportunity to showcase his talent in the playoffs

at home.

”That’s key,” he said. ”When you get home-field advantage you

have a good chance of making it to the big dance. We have the best

fans in the world. We win all of our home games, and that’s because

it’s loud and because our fans give us the energy. We want to play

well for them. That’s definitely an overall goal.”

One positive aspect about playing on Thanksgiving is that the

Ravens get some extra time off before their next game, a trip to

Cleveland on Dec. 4. The Browns have a sub-.500 record, so

Baltimore will be facing a familiar challenge in that all three of

its losses came on the road following significant wins (over the

Steelers twice and Houston).

That shortcoming has not gone unnoticed by Harbaugh, who bested

little brother Jim and the 49ers in a duel between two of the best

coaches and teams in the NFL.

”We’ve struggled on the road, and we have to go conquer that,”

Harbaugh said.

The Ravens hope to have Lewis back when they face the Browns,

but they’ve proven they can win without their unquestioned

defensive leader, who has been nursing a sore right toe. With Lewis

cheering from the sideline, Baltimore beat Cincinnati last Sunday

before snapping San Francisco’s eight-game winning streak behind a

suffocating, relentless defense that yielded only 170 yards and two

field goals.

”We miss Ray, but the game isn’t going to wait for him to heal

up,” safety Bernard Pollard said. ”We did a great job and we’re

excited. We’re hoping and praying that Ray has a speedy recovery –

we know what kind of player he is – but we’ve got to be ready to go

(without him).”

Jameel McClain will never be confused with Lewis, a 12-time Pro

Bowl standout, but McClain had eight tackles against the 49ers and

provided leadership in the middle of the defense as Lewis’

replacement.

”His leadership in the huddle has been excellent,” said tackle

Cory Redding, who contributed 2 1/2 sacks. ”It’s almost like Ray

is still out there. He’s seen Ray do it so much that he just took

it on his own to make the defense his.”

And now, the Ravens are in good position to make home-field

advantage theirs. After facing the Browns, the Ravens play at home

against winless Indianapolis, travel to San Diego, host Cleveland

and wrap up the regular season in Cincinnati.

Harbaugh will stress his usual game-at-a-time philosophy, but he

knows Baltimore’s collective performance next month will determine

the outcome of its quest to secure the top seed in the AFC.

”It’s December football,” he said, ”and that’s when you start

thinking about things like that.”