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Playoff bye, not division title, motivates Ravens in Week 17

The Ravens swept the Steelers this season for the first time since 2006. And on Sunday, Baltimore has a chance to win the AFC North for the first time since then and sweep the entire division for the first time in team history.

Pretty significant, right?

Actually, if you ask the most tenured Raven, then no, it's not. Would 16-year Raven Ray Lewis like to win the North? Of course, he would. But, to him, it's not about having a t-shirt and a hat in his locker after the game. Not this Sunday, anyway.

"Honestly, I haven't heard one conversation about the AFC North," Lewis told me Thursday. "It's the bye. It's the bye, and every team is wanting it. Pittsburgh is hoping we lose. New England has gotta hold on to it with Buffalo. So all the scenarios, they work hand-in-hand, and each team knows how important it is. It's rest. Everybody's limping."

The league went to the current 12-team playoff format in 1990. Since then, 21 Super Bowls have been played, and 32 of the 42 qualifying clubs entered the postseason with a bye. Six of the 10 remaining teams won the Super Bowl, but never have two teams coming from the wild-card round met in the big game.

So Lewis is right. The bye is huge. So I as kick off my last round of regular-season picks, the games that you should pay closest attention to on this list (not because I'll be right, because I probably won't) are Steelers-Browns, Ravens-Bengals, 49ers-Rams and Saints-Panthers, because those will be the ones that will put some teams on the field and others on the couch next weekend.

Now, it's worth noting that, in Lewis' case, his only ring came as part of a team that went through the wild-card round, and the only "bye team" he's played on was bounced by the Colts, 15-6, in its first playoff game in 2006. Even with that in mind, the future Hall of Famer doesn't waver.

"It's huge," Lewis said. "I mean, it didn't work out. You give one of the greatest quarterbacks five field goals, and still lose? … I just trust God that it was their year. But to have that, to have that type of rest, we know how we felt on defense, we knew how we were going to play. That's the kind of thing I'm trying to emphasize to these guys. They will never know how big that week is, to sit home and watch wild-card weekend, and wait for somebody and say, 'Y'all gotta come to Baltimore.' That's a special feeling."

To that, Lewis says, "The AFC North is just a bonus. It comes along with it." Remember, he's the only one in the Ravens locker room left from the 2000 team. At 36, his only goal is to get back there. Ed Reed, at 33, still is looking for his first title. Similarly, he told me his goal is singular, and this just makes attaining it a little easier.

Interesting how these guys look at it. Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens do have four playoff wins, a pretty impressive number for a three-year stretch, but they're also 3-4 away from home this year and 8-0 at M&T Bank Stadium. Little wonder they want to see what might happen if the playoffs script was flipped. Which makes this week's game in Cincy a big one, North title or no North title.

"You always find yourself having to go on the road to play somebody else. Instead of doing that, you can make people come to Baltimore," Lewis said. "Let's try that. We've been in the playoffs the last four years. Let's make somebody come to Baltimore. And let's see what our odds are then."

***

Albert Breer went 9-6 with his predictions in Week 16 and is now 151-84 for the season. How will he fare in Week 17? His picks are below, with home teams listed second:

Green Bay has motivation to a) play it safe health-wise and b) not show a potential divisional round foe too much. And the Lions are playing to avoid a trip to the Superdome.

Maybe it's hokey, but I think the Houston defense will put together an inspired effort for Wade Phillips this weekend. And I'd give Phillips the edge over Matt Hasselbeck here.

By winning, the Jaguars give Indy the No. 1 pick in the draft and potentially the same edge over the rest of the division it's enjoyed for the past 14 years.

Am I the only one with the feeling the Jets are somehow going to sneak into the playoffs? If they get there, they get Houston in Round 1, which could set up Jets- Patriots III in Foxboro.

The best quarterback in this game might be one starting the game on the sideline. And in the final game on the team's Metrodome lease, Joe Webb will find a way to come through again.

Tom Brady's sore left shoulder won't stop him from being the second man in six days to pass Dan Marino's 27-year-old record. Nor will it keep the Patriots from the AFC's top seed.

I trust my man Heath Evans when he says Sean Payton will rest starters here. But not before the Niners put the No. 2 seed to bed. And not before Drew Brees has his record safe from Brady.

Every year in college football, there's some team that looks really impressive in a mid-tier bowl, leading to big expectations for the following year. This is that bowl game for Philly.

I think the Niners passed another test in their development last week, grinding out a tough road win on a short week off a huge victory. The reward? A divisional playoff at Candlestick.

Pete Carroll's crew reaches .500 with a win here, which would mark an improvement over last year's divisional playoff team. And it'll have been done in a tougher division.

By kickoff, the Falcons could be locked into the sixth seed knowing they're going back to the Superdome for Round 1 of the playoffs. We'll see how it affects their approach.

Ugly game leaves Cincinnati on the outside looking into the postseason. But the future is bright, with Andy Dalton, Jermaine Gresham and A.J. Green and a stout defense at the core.

Ton of variables in play as the Steelers could be the No. 1, 2 or 5 seed in the AFC. With the Patriots at 1, I'd bet on Big Ben and the Pittsburgh starters playing into the second half, just in case.

Romeo Crennel will come up with something for Tim Tebow, and it might relate to what Bill Belichick did two weeks ago. Only K.C. has more horses on that side of the ball.

So yes, Tim Tebow sneaks into the playoffs. But there's nothing divine going on here, just a bad Lisfranc sprain that sunk Darren McFadden's season and Oakland's high hopes for 2011.

I have no idea who's gonna win this game -- just being honest. But I'd bet it comes down to the wire, and I trust the Giants more than the Cowboys in a spot like that.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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