BALTIMORE — 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.”