The Ravens treated Sunday's game against the New York Giants like their division championship.
They had already sealed a playoff spot, but the Ravens had lost three straight games and were in a tailspin down the stretch. The last thing Baltimore wanted was to drop another and head to Cincinnati with the AFC North on the line.
With that on their minds, the Ravens put up perhaps their best performance of the year, blowing out the defending Super Bowl champions, 33-14, at M&T Bank Stadium.
Baltimore secured its second straight AFC North division title for the first time in franchise history, and ensured itself a home playoff game in the wild-card round scheduled to be played in two weeks.
Depending on what the Ravens (10-5) and New England Patriots (11-4) do next week, Baltimore will either face the fifth-seeded Indianapolis Colts or sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Baltimore is currently the fourth seed, and would need a win and a Patriots loss to move up a spot.
"I think all of us in this room who cover this division know how difficult that is and what a challenge that is," Head Coach John Harbaugh said of taking the AFC North.
"It's been especially difficult coming for us the last few weeks, so we're darn proud of that. … I'm as proud of this team right now as ever. For them to earn a championship like this means a lot."
The Ravens had squandered three previous opportunities to win the division title. They backed into the playoffs last week after getting embarrassed at home by the Denver Broncos.
The Giants were fighting for their playoff lives, but Baltimore badly needed a win too.
"Like I said last week, we're going to see what kind of team we are," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "I think that we showed ourselves and we showed people today that we are that kind of team."
Baltimore was dominant all the way around, on offense and defense.
After three games with six turnovers that led to a mountain of criticism, Flacco responded with one of his best games of his season. He went 25-of-36 for 309 yards, two touchdowns, no turnovers and a quarterback rating of 114.2.
In Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell's second game, the Ravens picked up the tempo, weaved in some new wrinkles and posted the most yards of the entire season (533). Its previous high was 503 yards against New England in Week 3. Sunday's performance included a single-season high 224 rushing yards.
The Ravens defense was equally as impressive.
It pestered Giants quarterback Eli Manning all night, sacking him three times and hitting him nine times overall despite the fact that New York's offensive line had allowed a league-low 16 sacks this season. New York posted just 186 total yards of offense.
"We couldn't get anything going," Manning said. "The Ravens did a very good job on defense. They put a lot of pressure on me, and they gave us a lot of different looks. They made it hard for us."
The offense was clicking from the start, a drastic change from the week before when it started with five straight three-and-outs.
Baltimore began with a 14-play, 73-yard opening drive in which it converted on third down four times, including a on a rare option in which Flacco pitched to running back Ray Rice for an 18-yard gain. The Ravens capped it off with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith, his first score since Week 10 against Oakland.
Then Smith, who had averaged just 23 receiving yards per game over the previous three contests and was coming off a concussion, caught a bomb over his shoulder for a 43-yard gain. That put Baltimore on the 1-yard line and Flacco snuck it in from there to give the Ravens a 14-0, first-quarter lead.
"I think those plays kind of carried us and gave us a little jolt, and allowed us to run our offense pretty effectively today and build our confidence," Flacco said.
The Giants got their offense going with a 43-yard bomb to Rueben Randle and 14-yard touchdown run by backup running back David Wilson to cut the Ravens' lead in half. To that point, the Giants had given up 48 straight points.
But Baltimore's hot offense marched back down the field.
It converted on a third-and-19 with a 29-yard pass to Anquan Boldin, then looked to have a touchdown on the next play. Jacoby Jones caught a 9-yard pass, then turned and extended the ball over the goal line. He lost control of the ball when it hit the ground.
The play was automatically reviewed and controversially overturned, to the disdain of the fans, with the officials explaining that Jones didn't make a "second act." Baltimore ran twice and settled for a 23-yard field goal by Justin Tucker to extend its lead to 17-7.
Baltimore's defense nearly came up with a fumble recovery on the next drive when Paul Kruger hit Manning, adding to the referees' questionable calls.
The Ravens offense didn't lose steam. Smith started with a one-handed grab for 21 yards. Then Boldin moved the chains on third down with a fingertip grab. Flacco found Rice over the middle with a precise throw for a 27-yard touchdown. Baltimore took a 24-7 lead into halftime.
"I just think we had a little bit more sense of urgency because we knew what was at stake," Rice said. "This was a championship game for us."
The Ravens defense picked up where it left off in the second half, badgering Manning.
After a three-and-out to start, Baltimore's offense did the same. It overcome four penalties and a third-and-19 with a Flacco scrambling toss to tight end Dennis Pitta for 36 yards. The ball floated between two Giants defenders after Flacco directed Pitta to go deep.
The Ravens eventually had to settle for another Tucker field goal, this time from 21 yards out, to take a 27-7 lead with 5:18 remaining in the third quarter. Tucker added two more field goals, from 30 and 29 yards out, to round out the Ravens' scoring.
Afterwards, players donned their new AFC North Championship hats with huge smiles on their faces, taking pictures of each other in the locker room. It was a far different feeling from the past three games.
"When you lose three straight games, you tend to maybe get down on yourself and there tends to be division with a team," Pitta said.
"This team showed no signs of that. We stuck together and got even closer. We knew what it would take to get back on track and we continued to work hard. This is a nice payoff for all that work."
Last year, the Ravens had to wait until the final game in Cincinnati to win the AFC North title. This year, they'll head back there in Week 17 with the hardware already in their back pocket and the three-game losing skid in their rear-view mirror.
"Right now it's championship football and our story is still not written for the season," defensive end Art Jones said. "Now is just the beginning."