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Ravens visit recharged Bolts

BARRY WILNER
AP Football Writer

Even if they aren’t considered the NFL’s best team, the Ravens qualify as the most balanced. They can move the ball on the ground and through the air. They’re formidable against the run and the pass.

They can beat you deep or peck away. They can stuff you or sack you into submission.

Tonight, Baltimore brings that balance to San Diego, which has revitalized itself with two straight wins. While the Chargers (6-7) think they have an outside shot at a playoff berth, the Ravens (10-3) would need a complete collapse to fall short.

But with the Steelers breathing down their necks, the Ravens can’t lose their balance. Or any games.

The margin for error is that tiny.

“It’s very small because if you lose this one, or you lose that one, you never know how the tables will turn,” safety Ed Reed said. “That’s why early in the season you have so much frustration losing to those teams that we lost to. At the end, everything changes. That’s why we keep jumping Pittsburgh, and they keep jumping us.”

San Diego was a mess until two weeks ago, when it routed Jacksonville to snap a six-game slide. It did the same to Buffalo, but to think the Chargers have turned the corner might be a long reach.

New England (10-3) at Denver (8-5)

If anyone can figure out how to put a dent in Tebowmania and slow down the rampaging Broncos, it would be Bill Belichick.

Denver has won six in a row to take control in the AFC West, with Tim Tebow’s late-game heroics and a staunch defense and special teams sparking the spurt. Into the Mile High City come the Patriots, on the verge of clinching the AFC East after five straight victories, but with a defense that yields yards by the bushel.

New England can score with anybody, although it struggled against the best defense it faced in an October loss at Pittsburgh. The question is whether Belichick can find enough defense – and prevent the game from being close near the finish, when Tebow and company turn into magicians.

Pittsburgh (10-3)

at San Francisco (10-3), Monday night

No James Harrison (suspended for helmet-to-helmet hit on Colt McCoy), maybe no Ben Roethlisberger (sprained left ankle), and a tough opponent coming off a surprising loss but already in the playoffs.

Not exactly the scenario the Steelers envisioned for their trip to the Bay Area.

Still, it’s unwise to count out Roethlisberger, especially with the way he came back in the Cleveland game on Dec. 8 after the injury. Plus, Pittsburgh’s defense isn’t built solely around Harrison.

The 49ers want that No. 2 slot in the NFC playoffs and a bye, so they can’t afford a stumble with New Orleans in close pursuit.

Washington (4-9)

at New York Giants (7-6)

After breaking a four-game slide that placed their postseason hopes in jeopardy, the Giants now control the NFC East. Win out and it is theirs. They aren’t likely to overlook the last-place Redskins, who beat them in the opener – even if Washington is a shell of itself after a slew of injuries.

“This is against a division opponent that already punched us in the mouth,” safety Deon Grant said.

Eli Manning has been punching out defenses with his best pro season, which hasn’t gotten much notice in this Year of the Passer.

Dallas (7-6) at Tampa Bay (4-9),

Saturday night

With two consecutive losses, the Cowboys fully understand another pratfall likely leaves them home for the playoffs. Other than Indianapolis, no team is playing worse right now than the Buccaneers, who have dropped their last seven, so a loss in prime time would be a huge flop for Dallas.

With rookie sensation DeMarco Murray gone with a broken right ankle, Tony Romo and the Cowboys’ passing game will be counted on to carry the load. And to avoid the critical errors that often have doomed that unit.

New Orleans (10-3) at Minnesota (2-11)

Already locked into the postseason, the Saints keep up their chase of the Niners as well as going for the NFC South crown. Drew Brees continues his assault on Dan Marino’s passing record of 5,084 set in 1984. Brees is at 4,368 – he won’t reach it against the Vikings’ sieve of a pass defense, but should erase a huge chunk of the difference.

Green Bay (13-0) at Kansas City (5-8)

The pursuit of perfection takes the Packers to Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs are in the midst of upheaval. Kansas City fired coach Todd Haley this week after a distressing performance in which the team drew 11 penalties for 128 yards, including a 15-yarder for unsportsmanlike conduct on Haley.

Interim coach Romeo Crennel probably won’t berate the officials the way Haley did, but his frustration level trying to slow down Aaron Rodgers and the defending champions figures to be high. Green Bay has won 19 in a row and the NFL mark is 21 by the 2003-04 Patriots, for whom Crennel was defensive coordinator.

Detroit (8-5) at Oakland (7-6)

The Lions barely escaped against Minnesota last Sunday, with a missed facemask penalty on the final snap playing a huge role. They get back DT Ndamukong Suh from his two-game suspension, and they can use him as they pursue a wild-card spot.

Oakland can use anything that curbs its slide. In the last two losses, the Raiders were outscored 80-30, becoming the first team to fall behind 34-0 in successive weeks since the 1984 Bills.

“We don’t care how we get in there. We just want to get in there,” coach Hue Jackson said of the AFC playoffs. “We need to get off to a faster start. We haven’t played well on offense the last two weeks as far as scoring points. We’ve been consistently inconsistent, and that’s not an offense that I put my stamp on. We need to get better. And I think we will.”

Better be soon.

Seattle (6-7) at Chicago (7-6)

Two more teams on the fringes of the wild-card race, and considering the up-and-down nature of this season, either one could sneak into the playoffs.

For Chicago, it will be up to the defense, special teams and backups on offense to get the deed done. Minus outstanding RB Matt Forte and starting QB Jay Cutler, the Bears are hamstrung, and scored 13 points in their last two defeats. They also blew a 10-0 lead at Denver in the last 4 1-2 minutes to fall to 7-6.

Seattle won the NFC West at 7-9 a year ago, but with San Francisco’s surge, the Seahawks are left to try to sweep the final three games and hope to get an unfathomable amount of help elsewhere.

Cleveland (4-9) at Arizona (6-7)

Like the Seahawks, the Cardinals are on the edge of playoff extinction. Like Seattle, Arizona has been coming on, taking five of its last six, including wins over Dallas and San Francisco.

The Browns are in the midst of controversy over how they handled a concussion suffered by McCoy against Pittsburgh, a major distraction for a team that has been outscored 130-89 in losing five of six road games. Even worse, Cleveland finishes against division powers Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

New York Jets (8-5) at Philadelphia (5-8)

Like their New York brethren, the Jets definitely make the postseason by winning out; they lead for the AFC’s second wild-card slot. The defense has come around in the current three-game winning string, and QB Mark Sanchez had one of the best games of his three pro seasons in a rout of KC.

Philly actually remains alive not only for a wild card, but also to win the NFC East. Hard to believe considering how mediocre the Eagles have been, but with Michael Vick back in the lineup, they can still be a formidable foe.

Cincinnati (7-6) at St. Louis (2-11)

The Bengals feast on weak teams, lose to the good ones. The Rams most definitely are a weak team.

Cincinnati almost certainly must get to 10-6 to get the final AFC wild-card spot. St. Louis could win out and still not save coach Steve Spagnuolo’s job, although injuries have so depleted the roster that even Spags might not recognize some of the faces in the locker room.

Tennessee (7-6) at Indianapolis (0-13)

Although the Titans remain in contention for a wild card, they might decide this is the time for Jake Locker to take over at quarterback, especially if Matt Hasselbeck isn’t recovered enough from a left calf injury to start. But Locker also is slowed by a sore chest after a solid relief effort in a loss against New Orleans.

Indy started the 2009 season with 14 straight victories. Falling to Tennessee today will make it 14 straight defeats this year. At least the Colts have seen Peyton Manning do some throwing in light workouts this week.

Carolina (4-9) at Houston (10-3)

Don’t expect the Texans to begin resting people or let up on the pedal now that they own their first division title. They want to enter their first playoffs in 10 seasons of life as the top seed in the AFC, so three more wins are on their radar. It’s hard to doubt them the way they have responded despite injuries to such key starters as Mario Williams, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson.

Third-string QB T.J. Yates has been a revelation since taking over for the injured Schaub and Matt Leinart.

Miami (4-9) at Buffalo (5-8)

New coach Todd Bowles, who replaced the fired Tony Sparano on Monday, takes his Dolphins to western New York. Hardly a vacation destination this time of year, but he could be comforted by the fact Buffalo has lost six straight and its defense has fallen apart.