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Friday, November 25, 2011
Ravens win more than bragging rights

By Jamison Hensley

Alex Smith
The Baltimore defense made life miserable for Alex Smith, sacking the 49ers quarterback nine times.
BALTIMORE -- Winning the Harbaugh Bowl meant more to the Baltimore Ravens than bragging rights for John Harbaugh over his brother Jim.

The Ravens' decisive 16-6 victory over the San Francisco 49ers allows you to make the argument that Baltimore is the best team in the AFC. What's not debatable is this: The Ravens are the AFC's most dangerous team at home.

Baltimore roughed up Alex Smith and San Francisco (9-2) in the same ferocious manner that it slammed the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals into the M&T Bank Stadium turf. There's a good chance that three of those teams will make the playoffs this season, and none of them would want a return trip to Baltimore.

At 8-3, which is currently the best record in the AFC, the Ravens are making a run at hosting a postseason game for the first time since 2006. If the road in the AFC playoffs goes through Baltimore, that's bad news for Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.

With the home crowd of 71,000 chanting along to the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," the Ravens have been unstoppable this season, outscoring opponents by an average score of 29.2 to 15.8. Away from these cozy confines, Baltimore has been unwatchable this year, losing at Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle (combined record of 12-18).

The Ravens really haven't been the most inconsistent team in the NFL. They win at home and struggle on the road (outside of that last-minute rally at Pittsburgh).

Baltimore's winning formula at home is simple: attack quarterbacks and finish off teams in the fourth quarter. This is how the Ravens recorded their eighth straight home win and ended San Francisco's eight-game winning streak.

Baltimore consistently crashed the pocket on Smith with four- and five-man rushes, tying a franchise record with nine sacks. The Ravens' sacks outnumbered Smith's passes of more than 10 yards (five). For the season, 27 of the Ravens' 38 sacks (71 percent) have come at home.

The Ravens put away the NFC's second-best team with a 10-point fourth quarter. With the game tied at 6-6, Joe Flacco marched the Ravens 76 yards on 16 plays, capping the drive with an 8-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Dennis Pitta. On third downs in that possession, Flacco was 4-for-4 for 34 yards and a touchdown. For the season, the Ravens have outscored teams at home in the fourth quarter 43-13.

Winning on Thanksgiving moves Baltimore that much closer to some home cooking in the postseason.

"Obviously, playing here, we're pretty tough to beat just because coming here, we've got a great atmosphere the fans created," said Flacco, who was 15-of-23 for 161 yards. "We haven't had [a home playoff game] since I've been here. It would really be beneficial to get one."

The Ravens' goal this year isn't to simply make the playoffs. After three straight years of getting to the postseason, it's a feeling of been there, done that. But Baltimore has always done it the hard way under John Harbaugh, playing more road playoff games the past three seasons (seven) than anyone else in the NFL.

Since 2008, the Ravens have watched their seasons end twice in Pittsburgh and once in Indianapolis.

"When you get home-field advantage, you have a good chance of making it to the big dance," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who recorded three sacks and forced a fumble. "That's definitely an overall goal: win the division and get it at home."

The last time the Ravens played a home playoff game, their quarterback was Steve McNair. Now, after beating the 49ers, only one team with a winning record (the Bengals) stands in their way the rest of the regular season.

"It's December football, and that's when you start thinking about things like that," Harbaugh said. "But the only thing we need to be focused on is getting healthy and the Cleveland Browns."

He has a point. Baltimore has played its best against the NFL's best. It's beating the teams with losing records that has been the problem. Even the Ravens acknowledge that heading into their 10-day break before playing at the Browns (4-6).

"That's something we've struggled with on the road, and we have to go conquer that," Harbaugh said. "That's going to be a really tough task. I know all of our guys are going to focus on that and take care of first things first."

When it comes to playing at home, the Ravens seem to always take care of business. Since 2003, their defense has allowed the NFL's fewest points at home (15.0) and has intercepted the most passes (106). In his past 17 games at M&T Bank Stadium, Flacco has thrown 25 touchdowns and six interceptions.

One Baltimore fan held up a sign that read: "We have the better Harbaugh." But this Thanksgiving night was more than the older brother beating the younger. This was about the Ravens establishing themselves as the team to beat in the AFC and proving their dominance at home once again.

"[Beating the 49ers] meant a lot to this team and for our season and where we want to go," said Pitta, whose touchdown was the first of his career. "We enter December with all the opportunity in front of us. It's really in our hands."

Flacco's new look

This is the time when Flacco usually starts his playoff beard. This year, he is going with the Fu Manchu mustache.

"I'm just trying to get everybody to get on the bandwagon here on our offense," Flacco said. "It's kind of tough convincing everybody. A lot of great teams, they always have their signature thing that they go through a season with, and we're just trying to create one."

Suggs said he will support the new look with one condition.

"He can keep it as long as we win," he said. "He's the quarterback. He has to have swag. You don't see that from that kid up north [Tom Brady]. You don't see him with one of those."