AFC bullies swoop into postseason party

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

BALTIMORE -- The NFL's perennial bullies are crashing the postseason party.

The Baltimore Ravens never claimed to be the darlings of the league. The Ravens are not flashy or mainstream. They do not own a glitzy title such as "America's Team."

But Baltimore gets its thrills by pounding opponents into submission. The Ravens did that for the 11th time this season during a 27-7 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens' victory secured the No. 6 seed in the AFC.

With one of the league's toughest defenses, a strong-armed quarterback and a physical running game, the Ravens (11-5) have the look of a team primed to do postseason damage. Baltimore could be a bad matchup for a lot of teams and is a very tough out in a one-game scenario.

"I can't wait to get it going," Ravens tailback Le'Ron McClain said. "Every team we've lost to is in the playoffs, and I feel in my heart they're going to have to see us again."

Baltimore's five losses this year have been to the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers (twice) and New York Giants. But the Ravens first have to play at the No. 3 seeded Miami Dolphins (11-5) Sunday at 1 p.m. in a rematch of Baltimore's 27-13 victory in Week 7.

No one willfully invites the meanest kids to a party. So Baltimore had to kick in the door week after week just to get to the playoffs.

The Ravens won nine of their last 11 games to take the final seed from the New England Patriots (11-5), who applied pressure by beating the Buffalo Bills 13-0 Sunday.

"We're the Ravens; we don't get help,'" Baltimore linebacker Bart Scott said bluntly. "Come on, when have we ever gotten help? When has anything ever went our way to where we can say, 'Man, we really got a break.'"

But Baltimore didn't need help. Now that the Ravens are in, here is what they have to look forward to in the wild-card round:

Miami awaits

Baltimore controlled the first meeting defensively. The Ravens were the first defense to completely stuff Miami's Wildcat offense, holding the Dolphins to just 71 rushing yards total.

The Ravens also borrowed some of Miami's offbeat offensive principles to utilize in their own schemes -- using both quarterbacks Troy Smith and Joe Flacco in some formations. Both teams used that game as a springboard to better performances to close the season. Baltimore and Miami combined to win 17 games following the Oct. 19 meeting at Dolphin Stadium.

"I'll guarantee you they're a much better team than they were earlier this season --much better," Ravens receiver Derrick Mason said. "They were a hard team the first time."

In addition to having two of the NFL's hottest teams, you have two Coach of the Year candidates in John Harbaugh and Miami's Tony Sparano -- each excelling in his first year on the job. As a bonus, you get a a pair of great quarterback stories in Flacco and the Dolphins' Chad Pennington.

Wild-card success

Wild-card teams are no longer automatic fodder in the NFL playoffs. In fact, a wild-card team has won the Super Bowl in two of the past three years as the Pittsburgh Steelers (2005) and New York Giants (2007) both failed to win their divisions but were unstoppable in the playoffs.

Even the 2006 season's championship, the Indianapolis Colts, won their division but didn't get a first-round bye. Similar to the Steelers and Giants, Indianapolis also had to win three playoff games.

As a sixth seed, the Ravens have a puncher's chance. Behind a rookie head coach (Harbaugh) and quarterback (Flacco), Baltimore quickly has turned a 5-11 season in 2007 to an 11-5 record this year.

"This team started it way back in training camp, and we kind of knew how special we could be," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We looked at every game and said 'It takes 60 minutes, and at the end of the year let's see where we are.' We expected to be here. We didn't worry about expectations outside of our locker room."

The regular-season records in the NFL no longer matter.

Before leaving the locker room Sunday night, Scott summed up his feelings on Baltimore's playoff chances in three simple words.

"Why not us?" he shrugged.