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Playoff picture muddied further with loss by Ravens, other hopefuls

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BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens were hot. Radioactive hot, as in angry; not efficient, effective or dominant. In a game they had to win on Sunday, they lost. In a turn of the cliché, they wanted it less than Indianapolis did.

Baltimore turned back the clock and played lights-out defense, forcing three turnovers and holding the rampaging Colts to 17 points -- their second-fewest point total of the season. The problem was that the Ravens scored an uncharacteristic 15.

In turning back the clock, the offense looked quite Kyle Boller-ish -- settling for five field goals (one after having a first-and-goal at the 1) and quarterback Joe Flacco threw a fourth-quarter interception at the doorstep of the end zone.

Ravens running back Ray Rice candidly (and perfectly) summed up the carnage:

Gail Burton / Associated Press
After falling to the Colts on Sunday, Derrick Mason and the Baltimore Ravens have put themselves in a precarious position in the AFC playoff race.

A cornucopia of big games

An early look at some Week 12 games with playoff implications:

Green Bay at Detroit: It's been awhile since there's been a meaningful Thanksgiving Day game that included the Lions. Packers in control of postseason destiny.

N.Y. Giants at Denver: The Turkey Day nightcap on NFL Network should be a dandy, especially with the Broncos in need of ending another potentially season-ruining freefall a year after suffering a franchise-altering collapse. Giants need to win to keep pace in NFC East.

Miami at Buffalo: The Dolphins are rolling but a loss here could be crippling in an ultra-compressive AFC wild-card race.

Indianapolis at Houston: The Texans nearly beat the Colts in Indy in Week 9, and if the Colts are going to lose, this might be the game, as it looks to be the toughest left on the schedule. Houston needs to keep it going, especially now that teams like Jacksonville and Miami have crept back into play.

Washington at Philadelphia: The Redskins are good enough on defense to stage an upset and the Eagles are inconsistent enough to fall victim, even at home. Philly can't afford many more setbacks, especially to teams it should beat.

Pittsburgh at Baltimore: These two bitter rivals now have a ton more at stake both in the division and in the wild-card race. This game could be even better than the thrillers the Steelers and Ravens typically provide.

New England at New Orleans: These teams are in control of their divisions, but now we'll get to see if the undefeated Saints can roll with the Big Boys. If so, this Monday nighter could be a Super Bowl preview.

-- Steve Wyche

"They're used to scoring 30 points a game; we got their worst today," said Rice. "Peyton Manning threw two interceptions and they fumbled the ball on the goal line. We have to score on the 1-yard line. When we get the ball in the red zone, we have to put up points. That team should have been playing from behind. It's football.

"On the brighter side of things, we actually have the Steelers (next week), and they lost today."

Of all that Rice said -- and it was truthful and really insightful -- the most provocative was the part about facing the Steelers. First, it shows you the kind of season it is when a team, even a rival like Baltimore (5-5), is categorizing a showdown with Pittsburgh (6-4) at this point of the season as being on the "brighter side of things."

That the Steelers, whose quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might not be available in Week 12 because of a blow to the head he took in a shocking overtime loss to Kansas City, are just as desperate as Baltimore makes next week's divisional showdown a must-see. Coming into the weekend, it appeared that at least one of these AFC North teams could threaten the division-leading Bengals (7-3) and moonwalk into a wild-card playoff berth.

Now, both of these blood-and-guts playoff staples are on the ropes in a major way, and the Bengals aren't locks to win the AFC North either, not after stumbling at Oakland on Sunday. The Steelers sit a game in back of Cincinnati, the Ravens two, although both have been swept by the Bengals, giving Cincy a sizeable tiebreaker advantage.

"We all understand what needs to happen now," Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "You can't get into the playoffs unless you win 10 games or more. We have to win every game from here on out, point blank. However you cut it, dice it, we need to win every game from here on out. Anyone that thinks that we don't have to win all these games from here on out, they're lying to themselves.

"So if you want to call it pressure, then it's pressure. We need to go out and we need to win every single game."

There are a number of teams this weekend who failed to help themselves -- and there were those that improved their lot -- who've just made a season that has been top-heavy and bottom-weak, much, much more interesting.

In the AFC, surging Miami (5-5), Tennessee (4-6 if it can beat Houston on Monday night) and Jacksonville (6-4) just made Baltimore and Pittsburgh's playoff footing a little more precarious, while Houston (6-4 if it beats Tennessee) could strengthen its playoff position much like San Diego did with its win in Denver. In losing, the Steelers, Broncos and Ravens have increased the importance of every remaining game they play.

And that's how teams get hot going into the playoffs and generate momentum to advance deep into January.

Along with the Bengals, the 10-0 Colts (AFC South) and 7-3 Patriots (AFC East) seem to have decent grips on their divisions. The only real question in that regard comes in the West, where the Chargers, despite their impressive run, are equally capable of letting the reeling Broncos back into the hunt.

In the NFC, the Giants (6-4) thrust themselves back into play by snapping a four-game losing streak, sending Atlanta (5-5) to its third straight loss and putting the Falcons in desperation mode for their remaining six games. The Giants are hardly out of the woods either, especially with the NFC East title likely being up for grabs until the final weekend of the season.

The NFC East-leading Cowboys (7-3) don't have much breathing room with the Giants and Eagles looming -- and Tony Romo does have a dubious history in December.

In the NFC North, the Packers (6-4) are back in play for a wild-card spot after staggering through a few tough weeks in which Minnesota all but seized the division crown. Unless Arizona stumbles (and perhaps even if it doesn't), it should repeat as division champs. Another round of losses this weekend by San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis did nothing but put those teams in position to jockey for some of next year's top 15 picks.

With so many teams still in the hunt, with so much still to play for, the final six weeks are setting up nicely for a fantastic finish.

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