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Ravens clinch bye by beating Bills 19-7

BALTIMORE (Dec. 31, 2006) -- The Baltimore Ravens got the bye they coveted. Now they've got a week off before resuming the pursuit of their ultimate goal: a trip to the Super Bowl.

Using a stellar performance from the defense and an efficient effort from the offense -- the same formula that won them a world championship in 2001 -- the Ravens beat the Buffalo Bills 19-7 to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Baltimore finished as the No. 2 seed in the AFC. The Ravens needed San Diego to lose to Arizona in order to gain the top seed in the conference, but the Chargers won, 27-20.

That didn't hinder the celebration in the Baltimore locker room. The players were given the first part of next week off, and when they return they should have Pro Bowl tackle Jonathan Ogden (toe) and guard Keydrick Vincent (groin) back in the lineup.

Thus, the importance of the bye.

"Coming into the game it was something at the top of our agenda, to come in and get the victory just so we can have that week off," said cornerback Chris McAlister, who scored the Ravens' lone touchdown. "A lot of people can really use it. We can rest up a couple of injuries in guys we have that didn't suit up today."

McAlister returned an interception 31 yards for a score and the Ravens yielded only 39 yards rushing to put a pretty bow on the finest regular season in franchise history. Baltimore (13-3) will enter the playoffs with a four-game winning streak and nine wins in its last 10 games.

When the Ravens next play at home on the weekend of Jan. 13-14, their opponent will have already played its 17th game.

"Two for one. We won one when we actually won two," Ravens defensive tackle Trevor Pryce said. "That was our focus. ... It's something that gives us an advantage, more than anything else. Now someone else has to come here and play us."

Matt Stover kicked four field goals for Baltimore. The Ravens didn't need an offensive touchdown because the defense carried the day.

Steve McNair, who revived Baltimore's offense this season, went 23 for 35 for 216 yards in directing an attack that was conservative, yet effective.

"When you have the No. 1 defense in football, when you have Steve McNair and you have our defense playing the way they are," linebacker Ray Lewis said, "we're going to be a hard team to deal with in the playoffs."

McAlister's touchdown provided the Ravens with a 16-7 lead with 3:46 left in the third quarter. The Pro Bowl cornerback stepped in front of Peerless Price, reached high to grab the pass from J.P. Losman and scurried down the left sideline, holding the ball aloft in his right hand over the final 15 yards.

It was McAlister's career-high sixth interception of the season, and the fifth time this season the Ravens returned an interception for a touchdown.

Baltimore expanded its lead to 19-7, and Samari Rolle picked off Losman's pass in the end zone with just over two minutes left to seal the win.

Losman went 20 for 35 for 237 yards, but Buffalo (7-9) fell short in its bid to close at .500 in its first season under coach Dick Jauron.

"They are a good team and they know it. They're going to the playoffs and we are going home," Bills offensive tackle Jason Peters said.

"We finished strong, but we didn't come and play how we wanted to play," said running back Willis McGahee, who had 23 yards rushing in 11 carries. "We have to wait til next year now."

The Ravens went up 9-0 early in the third quarter when Stover kicked a 39-yard field goal after Kelly Gregg recovered a fumble by McGahee, who was hit by Ray Lewis.

But the Bills wouldn't go quietly. Losman directed a 76-yard drive that surpassed the total yardage Buffalo had to that point, and his 44-yard touchdown pass to Lee Evans closed the gap to 9-7.

Baltimore outgained Buffalo by more than 100 yards in the first half (177-72), but led only 6-0 at the break.

The Ravens opened the game with a 13-play, 55-yard drive that produced a 26-yard field goal. McNair completed five passes to Derrick Mason during the possession, including an 8-yarder that enabled the quarterback to join Steve Young and Fran Tarkenton as the only players in NFL history with 30,000 yards passing and 3,500 rushing.

"I wish I was around for the first 29,500 (yards)," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's an incredible guy to be around."

Notes: The Ravens wore their black uniforms for the first time this season. ... Evans had seven catches for 145 yards and his eighth TD. ... Baltimore finished 7-1 at home. ... Ravens WR Mark Clayton, who was battling the flu, had only two catches for 26 yards.

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