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Offense faces toughest test in finale

Today's football game at M&T Bank Stadium will be very much like a final exam for the Buffalo Bills' offense.

Not just any final exam, either. It will be the football equivalent of a state Regents test. Or maybe the bar exam.

The Bills' offense better be ready for its hardest trial of the season when it meets the Baltimore Ravens in the regular-season finale.

Baltimore (12-3) boasts the top defense in the NFL. The Ravens rank No. 1 in yards allowed, points allowed, sacking the quarterback, third-down defense and interceptions. They're No. 2 against the run and No. 2 in the red zone.

What's more, they have all the motivation on their side.

The Bills are playing for pride and the chance to finish 8-8. Baltimore needs the game to get next week off before the playoffs start.

The Ravens still have an outside chance at home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. If they win and San Diego loses at home to Arizona, Baltimore is the No. 1 seed. Even if the Chargers win, the Ravens will clinch the No. 2 seed -- and a first-round bye -- with a win over the Bills or a loss by Indianapolis at home against Miami.

"We've got a great opportunity here to test ourselves against a team that has to win," Bills coach Dick Jauron said. "They have a lot of incentive to win. They're a 12-3 team, they're definitely a Super Bowl contender. So we get a chance to play one of the best teams in the league."

"We're motivated to finish 8-8," said Bills linebacker London Fletcher. "That's what we're trying to do, finish the season with a win and continue to build on what we've already established."

The Bills' offense has averaged 24 points per game the past eight weeks, compared with 14 ppg the first seven weeks.

The Ravens' defense has yielded 24 points just once all season (in a 27-26 win over Tennessee). The past six games, the Ravens have allowed just five touchdowns and 9 ppg.

"This game comes at a good time because we feel like throughout the season we've been improving a little bit, particularly lately," said Bills offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild. "So this will be a good measuring stick for us to see where we're at."

The Ravens play a 3-4 scheme but present a ton of different alignments under the guidance of coordinator Rex Ryan, son of famed NFL defensive coach Buddy Ryan.

"They do a lot of things and they're particularly complicated or unique on third down," Fairchild said. "They've got a number of good pass rushers, which makes game planning a little harder because you can't just chip a particular guy. They are good, and it's going to test us."

The Ravens have 57 sacks, and they have a chance to put four players into double-digits in sacks. Defensive end Trevor Pryce, the former Denver Bronco, has 12 sacks. Outside linebacker Adalius Thomas has 11. Inside linebacker Bart Scott has 9.5, and outside backer Terrell Suggs has 8.5.

It's a veteran unit that can change formations without getting its assignments mixed up.

"They don't even show the same look within one play," Fairchild said. "They're dynamic the way they move. I think what sets them apart is they have a number of very talented pass rushers on the field at one time.

"It's kind of fun to watch them because they come from every angle. They're not afraid to put guys inside who are normally outside. So they try to confuse you. If you play tentative -- which I'm sure we will not -- they're hard to block. If you get a bead on what you want to do, it at least gives you a chance."

The Ravens also play with a fierceness that is not seen every week.

"At the least, you have to match it because if you don't it'll be pretty bad," said Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes. "We want to go in and set the tone. We want to set the tone at their place, starting with special teams and offense or defense, whoever gets on the field first. In the past they're the type of team that whatever turf they step on, they claim it. They bring a lot of attitude and intensity to the game. As a player you love those type of games."

Spikes said the Bills would love to be the bump on the Ravens' playoff road.

"When you walk away from the game at the end of the year, you have to live and wait until next September for another game that really counts," he said. "So you just want to be the spoiler. I think it's very important for playoff teams at the end of December to continue the rhythm they have going into the playoffs. So that's what you're trying to do, to knock that off."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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