Ravens get the 'hard' playoff path

CINCINNATI -- On Saturday night, before a New Year's Eve fireworks show interrupted some much-needed sleep, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh explained to his team the enormity of their upcoming game.

The Ravens knew the deal: Beat the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Ravens would sweep the division and be AFC North champions for the first time since Harbaugh arrived in Baltimore in January 2008. They would also end their streak of seven consecutive road playoff games and get at least one chance to play at M&T Bank Stadium, where they are 8-0 this season, 15-1 over the past two seasons and 27-5 over the past four.

Beat the Bengals and Baltimore would earn the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a bye week to rest and recover from a long, bruising season. But perhaps the biggest perk of beating the Bengals was something Harbaugh wasn't willing to concede until after the Ravens won 24-16 to finish the regular-season 12-4.

"It's nice to send [the Pittsburgh Steelers] on the road," Harbaugh told me.

After an entertaining day when all but four games carried some type of playoff ramifications, the NFL's second season is now set to go. Twelve teams remain. The San Francisco 49ers joined the Green Bay Packers as NFC teams enjoying first-round byes. After trailing the Buffalo Bills 21-0 in the first quarter, the New England Patriots reeled off 49 unanswered points to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.

Cincinnati and the Denver Broncos both made the playoffs despite losing their season finales. The New York Jets and Oakland Raiders lost to end their postseason hopes, while the Tennessee Titans won but did not get the help they needed to be included. In what amounted to a play-in game for the final NFC playoff spot, the New York Giants crushed the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night to win the NFC East and become the No. 4 seed in the conference.

So, Wild Card Weekend will look like this: No. 6 Cincinnati at No. 3 Houston on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.; No. 6 Detroit at No. 3 New Orleans on Saturday at 8 p.m.; No. 5 Atlanta at No. 4 New York on Sunday at 1 p.m.; No. 5 Pittsburgh at No. 4 Denver on Sunday at 4:30 p.m.

What has become increasingly apparent in recent weeks is that there are three really good teams in each conference -- Green Bay, San Francisco and the New Orleans Saints in the NFC; New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC -- and then there is everybody else.

With the Houston Texans having lost three straight games and enduring seemingly never-ending quarterback issues, Cincinnati very well could have the advantage as the sixth seed playing on the road. Likewise for 12-4 Pittsburgh when it plays at the 8-8 Broncos, losers of their last three.

New Orleans has been unstoppable in its dome, although Detroit has a 5,000-yard passer in Matthew Stafford, who impressively joined Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Tom Brady as the only quarterbacks to throw for 5,000 yards in a season. The Atlanta Falcons hammered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, and Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez should be a matchup nightmare for the Giants' depleted secondary.

The Packers, Niners, Patriots and Ravens will get the luxury of sitting back and watching the action from the comfort of their homes, feet up, bodies rested, pressure off.

On New Year's Eve, Harbaugh talked to his team about the importance of earning that luxury. There are three ways to get to a championship, Harbaugh told them: the impossible way, the harder way, and the hard way.

"By winning this game, we got [the] hard [way], and that's better than the other two options," Harbaugh said.

He should know. In 2008, after an 11-5 regular season, the Ravens were the No. 6 seed and won at Miami and Tennessee before losing to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. In 2009, as the No. 6 seed, they won at New England before losing at Indianapolis. Last season, as the No. 5, Baltimore beat a surprising Kansas City team 30-7 on the road and then again lost to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.

"We've been harder because we've had to go on the road," Harbaugh said. "We've been harder. If you don't make the playoffs, it's impossible to win the Super Bowl. If we didn't win this game, it was going to be harder again because we'd have to go on the road and play an extra game.

"But the point was there is no easy way. Win this game, and it's still going to be tough."

At least there will not be another playoff game for the Ravens at Heinz Field. That should help their chances at getting to the Super Bowl, too.

Harbaugh said the Ravens' formula for success is simple. He likened it to "old school," Big Ten football.

"It's field-position football," Harbaugh said. "Don't make mistakes. Complete passes. Run the ball. Stop the run. Don't give up big plays. Keep the pressure on your opponent. Push them back in their own end as much as you can. And keep the pressure and they'll make mistakes and then you can squeeze the life out of them."

In other words, more of running back Ray Rice breaking long runs like he did against Cincinnati, and Terrell Suggs getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers, and less of Joe Flacco throwing deep passes that fall incomplete.

Baltimore didn't need Flacco to be spectacular to beat Cincinnati. He was an efficient 15-of-19 for 130 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions.

But the offense really struggled in the third quarter, when it managed one first down and 26 yards. Leading 17-13 in the fourth quarter, after the Ravens' fourth consecutive punt of the half, Baltimore got a huge play from Suggs. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton completed a short pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham, who was hit and stripped of the ball by Suggs at the Baltimore 40-yard line. Three plays later, Rice ran 51 yards for his second touchdown of the game and a 24-13 lead. He finished with 191 rushing yards on the day.

"When we play hard and play physical and play Ravens football," said safety Bernard Pollard, "I don't think we can be beat."

That might be going a bit far, but the Ravens like where they are, and why not? To play at home, and to not have to play at Pittsburgh, will make the road to Indianapolis that much smoother.

"Home field doesn't guarantee anything," Harbaugh said, "but we will play well at home."


What I learned from Week 17:

Tim Tebow must be better for the Broncos to have a chance. In two games against Kansas City this season, Tebow completed just eight passes, going 6-for-22 on Sunday.

Defensively, the Chiefs aren't the Steelers, who will be Denver's first-round playoff opponent. With ample tape on Tebow now available, teams are doing a better job containing him on the outside and forcing Tebow to pass downfield, which he has struggled to do.

Tebow is a great athlete and a wonderful story, but he can't expect to beat the Steelers by passing for just 60 yards.

The Cowboys simply aren't good enough. With the loss to New York, Dallas ended the season with four losses in its last five games to finish third in the NFC East. The Cowboys have average talent and holes on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary. They are undisciplined, and this season they did not play well in big moments.

Dallas has work to do this offseason. It has now missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons and won just one playoff game in the past decade.

"This is not a good feeling right now," quarterback Tony Romo said afterward. "We need to continue to get better and improve, and we will in this offseason."

Pittsburgh is going to miss Rashard Mendenhall. It is not that the Steelers leaned heavily on their running game this season. Mendenhall finished the season with 928 yards and nine touchdowns before leaving Pittsburgh's 13-9 win over the Cleveland Browns with what the Steelers fear is a season-ending knee injury.

But with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger still hobbled by a high ankle sprain, it would help to have Mendenhall as an option. In 10 quarters since Roethlisberger injured his left knee, the Steelers have scored two touchdowns. Roethlisberger has thrown one touchdown pass and four interceptions.

Like Baltimore, the Steelers really could have used a bye week. They also could have used Mendenhall. Instead, they go to Denver without him.

Sometimes talent evaluators make mistakes. How else to explain Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz not getting drafted out of the University of Massachusetts?

Last season, Cruz signed as a rookie free agent and played in three games, mostly on special teams. This season, he had 76 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns, and trailed only Detroit's Calvin Johnson (1,681) and New England's Wes Welker (1,569) in receiving yards.

Against Dallas on Sunday night, Cruz had a 74-yard touchdown reception that included 69 yards after the catch. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was Cruz's third catch this season in which he gained at least 60 yards after the catch, tied with Houston's Arian Foster for most in the league.

"Where did we get this guy?" defensive end Justin Tuck asked after the game. He was only half-joking.

Matthew Stafford is in elite company. It is remarkable that in a season dominated by three players' pursuit of one of the most legendary records in sports, Stafford snuck into the picture on the final day of the regular season. With the Packers taking the safe approach and resting Aaron Rodgers against the Lions, it was Stafford rather than Rodgers who passed his way into the rarified air of a 5,000-yard season.

With 520 yards against the Packers on a day when the teams combined for 1,000 passing yards, Stafford (5,043) finished the season just shy of breaking Dan Marino's record of 5,084 passing yards set in 1984. Tom Brady sailed past Marino and finished with 5,235. Drew Brees is now the record-holder -- at least until next season -- with 5,476 yards.

Updated draft order: According to ESPN Stats & Information, here is the 2012 draft order for the 20 teams that did not reach the playoffs, with four spots to be determined by coin flips:

Indianapolis, St. Louis, Minnesota, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Washington, Jacksonville, Panthers/Dolphins, Buffalo, Kansas City/Seattle, Arizona, Dallas, Philadelphia, New York Jets, Oakland, San Diego, Chicago, Tennessee.


Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:

Steve Spagnuolo is gone. The St. Louis Rams did what everyone expected and fired coach Steve Spagnuolo on Monday morning. The Rams were just 10-38 in three seasons under Spagnuolo, who should find a home on a staff elsewhere.

After speaking with two former high-ranking Philadelphia employees with ties to Spagnuolo, I've become increasingly convinced the Eagles will hire Spagnuolo to be their defensive coordinator and reassign current coordinator Juan Castillo to another position on the staff.

Spagnuolo's wife, Maria, is a Philadelphia native, and they still have a house in the city. If Spagnuolo -- a disciple of former Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson -- returns to the Eagles, it could end defensive line coach Jim Washburn's tenure in Philadelphia. Washburn runs a wide-9 front and does not like to blitz; like the late Johnson, Spagnuolo loves to blitz from every direction.

The 52-year-old Spagnuolo also would give Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie a head-coach-in-waiting when current head coach Andy Reid, who just completed his 13th season in Philadelphia, either decides he is ready to retire or is shown the door.

So who replaces Spagnuolo? It could be former Titans coach Jeff Fisher. Kevin Demoff is the Rams' executive vice preside of football operations and chief operating officer. His father, Marvin, is Fisher's agent. It would make a natural union. Marvin Demoff said recently that Fisher, who left the Titans after last season, would listen to any and all offers.

Will there be a mystery firing? Norv Turner and Raheem Morris surely won't be surprised if their phones ring with bad news this week, but what about someone out of left field? Will there be a surprise?

I think Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis and Jason Garrett in Dallas are safe. But what about Mike Shanahan? Could Daniel Snyder look at Shanahan's 11-21 record and make a move? Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn each got two seasons as Washington's coach, and each won one more games than Shanahan has.

The Texans lost more than just a game on Sunday. They also lost an opportunity for T.J. Yates to get much-needed playing time. The outcome didn't effect Houston's seeding or playoff position, but Yates played one series in a loss to Tennessee before leaving with a shoulder injury.

Jake Delhomme, Yates' replacement, isn't going to leapfrog Yates into the starting lineup. He is the backup. Yates won his first two starts -- against Atlanta and Cincinnati -- but lost the next two and needed to be getting valuable reps and trying to establish something positive heading into the playoffs.

Instead, he watched the game from the sideline. Not good for Houston.

Santonio Holmes is a disgrace. Let's review: The Jets' season was on the line late against Miami, and one of New York's captains and best receiving threats was on the sideline, benched for quitting on the team?

That is not how a team captain is supposed to behave. He is not supposed to quit on his teammates, or get into an altercation in a huddle, or pout, or not run hard on routes.

The sage LaDainian Tomlinson told reporters after the Jets' season ended that, "there were some guys who were unhappy with Tone's demeanor. It's tough for guys to follow a captain who kind of behaves in that manner."


A player who will be under review today:

Packers backup QB Matt Flynn earned a raise on Sunday. Flynn won a national championship at LSU, and against the Lions he proved worthy of a bigger payday and potentially a starting job in the NFL next season.

Flynn completed 31 of 44 passes for 480 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-41 win over Detroit. He became just the third player to start at quarterback for the Packers in the past 20 years, and the first-ever Green Bay quarterback to throw six touchdown passes in a game. Brett Favre never did that. Neither has Rodgers.

What is Flynn exactly? Someone who thrived in Green Bay's system, as Matt Cassel did in New England's? Or is he a legitimate quarterback capable of going to, say, Washington, and making a huge difference?

We will find out soon enough. Flynn's rookie contract expires at the end of this season. There are teams that need quarterbacks. Might Washington take a flier on him? Or Kansas City? Or Seattle? Or Miami?

If one game is any indication, Flynn is capable of putting up big numbers in the right system with lots of talent around him. More telling will be what Flynn is capable of doing in a less-than-ideal situation.


Notable tweets from around the league:

"Hats off to Trent, Jim, coaches, scouts, players, & #NinerFaithful for a great regular season. Let's keep rolling!" -- @JedYork, the 49ers' owner, after San Francisco beat St. Louis 34-27 to claim the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

"Hoping to be back in Houston next week. Lets go Ravens, Broncos, & Raiders! #Titans" -- @Hasselbeck, Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, at 5:57 p.m. ET, when the Titans' playoff hopes were still alive.

"Next season will be totally different. I promise!!!!" -- @MikeVick, after the Eagles won their fourth straight game to
finish 8-8 and 5-1 in the NFC East.

"Enjoying watching Victor Cruz play. Week after week he keeps making plays" -- @LarryFitzgerald, during the fourth quarter of the Giants' win over Dallas.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.