The Ravens officially stamped their playoff ticket with a 21-13 win over the Oakland Raiders, but they certainly didn't make it easy on themselves.
A 39-yard field goal from Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski pulled the Raiders to within 14-13 late in the third quarter, but the Ravens forced two second-half turnovers to put the game out of reach.
Baltimore will now head to New England for a postseason matchup with the Patriots on Sunday at 1 p.m. with the potential to avenge a 27-21 loss in Foxboro, Mass., earlier this year.
The Ravens relied on an opportunistic defense that held strong when needed and a big day from running back Willis McGahee, who scored three touchdowns and notched a career-high 167 rushing yards.
Coupled with Ray Rice's 70 yards on 14 carries, Baltimore racked up 243 yards on the ground, second only to a 308-yard outburst against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 13.
But even though the Ravens averaged an impressive 6.9 yards per attempt, the Raiders made Baltimore work for the victory.
"It's hard to make the playoffs in the National Football League, and our guys did it," said head coach John Harbaugh. "It's been a tough road. We've suffered our share of disappointments, but congratulations to our players and coaches that made it happen in difficult circumstances."
Things didn't start well for Baltimore, as the Ravens' first drive stalled at their own 28-yard line. But after holding Oakland to a three-and-out, the Ravens came back for an eight-play, 74-yard drive that culminated in a 2-yard touchdown plunge by McGahee.
McGahee's second came in the second quarter, when he followed tight ends Todd Heap and L.J. Smith off the right ride of the line, stiff armed Raiders safety Hiram Eugene and sprinted 77 yards to the end zone.
His third simply capitalized on an interception from rookie linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who picked off backup JaMarcus Russell over the middle of the field and returned it 28 yards to the Raiders' 22.
Five plays later at the 13:16 mark of the fourth quarter, McGahee rumbled over the goal line for a 1-yard score.
McGahee's efforts helped erase a third quarter that nearly cost the Ravens the game – and their postseason chances.
Baltimore entered Sunday's contest as the NFL's highest-scoring offense in the third period with 123 total points. But three third-quarter marches only amounted to three-and-outs, while quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked four times.
"Willis took over the game the way he ran," Harbaugh said. "Our offensive line deserves a lot of credit. Obviously, there were a lot of holes, but Willis was running north and south. He's explosive, he's powerful, and I think he's worked really hard all season to have this kind of game. His attitude, his work ethic has been off the charts. Willis McGahee is a leader on this football team, and it's so good to see him step up the way he did."
The Raiders threatened to play postseason spoiler and continue their terrorization of the AFC North. Oakland had beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals previously this year, along with playoff contenders in the Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos.
Essentially abandoning the run, the Raiders challenged Baltimore's secondary, as starting quarterback Charlie Frye completed 18 of 25 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown before giving way to Russell in the second half because of back and ankle injuries.
Frye knifed through the defensive backfield just short of halftime to keep the margin close with a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Miller, who got free in the second level of the Ravens' defense.
Frye hit wideout Johnny Lee Higgins for a 21-yard connection and Louis Murphy for a 17-yarder before he found Miller behind linebacker Ray Lewis.
"You play football long enough and you know it's never easy," Lewis said. "This team is very capable and has a lot of playmakers in a lot of different places so we knew it was going to be hard fought game."
The Ravens could have extended the lead just before the break, but another poor snap from long snapper Matt Katula, who has been suffering from tendinitis in his right elbow, led to a missed 37-yard field goal from Billy Cundiff as time expired.
Then, the Raiders shut down Baltimore's offense after halftime. The Ravens' first two offensive series went for three-and-outs, which gave the Raiders room to pull to within one point on Janikowski's second field goal.
But, it was a Ravens' defense that is ranked third in the league that came up with the deciding plays.
Ellerbe intercepted Russell to set up McGahee's third score, inciting a half-full Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum to lustily boo the former No. 1-overall draft pick.
Ellerbe, an undrafted rookie free agent, also recovered a Russell fumble in the fourth quarter to keep the ball out of the Raiders' hands.
All told, the Ravens set a new franchise mark for the most rushing touchdowns in a season, scoring their 20th, 21st and 22nd. That mark is tied with the Miami Dolphins for the NFL's most.
Now, the Ravens are preparing for a playoff contest against the Patriots, who won the first matchup between these two teams on Oct. 4.
"We went up there earlier this year and felt like we should have gotten one," said Flacco. "This will be our chance to get that one back and prove to ourselves and everybody that we can beat those guys. That's where it starts."