Ravens must seize chance to take giant leap forward

September 14, 1997|By John Eisenberg

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- One win, one loss, one chance to establish themselves early in the season as a better team than anyone expected.

The Ravens found themselves at such a crossroads last season and took the wrong fork; the Oilers spiked them with authority in the third week of the season, sending them careening toward a 4-12 season.

One year later, the Ravens get the same chance today against the New York Giants.

It's their biggest game since they moved from Cleveland, for one simple reason: Finally, they have something to gain.

They didn't have the spark, talent or consistency to last the season as a surprise team a year ago, so they actually had less to gain than it appeared in that fateful game against the Oilers.

Whether they have the necessary spark, talent and consistency this year still isn't clear, either, but their solid victory over the Bengals last week certainly suggested that, at the very least, they have the potential to prove wrong those who called for the team to spend another season at the bottom of the AFC Central.

It's a simple dynamic, really: Lots to gain, lots to lose, no reading between the lines required.

A victory today would accomplish all sorts of positives, giving the Ravens their first road win, their first back-to-back wins and a winning record for the first time since they won their inaugural game last year.

It also would give them bona fide momentum heading into a big divisional game against the Oilers next weekend -- a game that could serve as a springboard to, well, ah, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Anyway, those are all small but critical goals that must be reached at some point for the Ravens to begin elevating their circumstances and achieving better results than a year ago, and they don't take those steps now, when the chance is there, they're probably not going to take them in 1997.

At the same time, a loss today to the mediocre, vulnerable Giants (12-22 since 1995) would accomplish all sorts of negatives, stretching the Ravens' franchise road record to 0-9, sending them back to the bottom of the division standings and reconfirming their reputation as a team that never wins when it's not supposed to win.

So, it's not too complicated, is it?

At this point, with a 5-13 franchise record and a history of losing leads, the Ravens remain a bottom-feeder until proven otherwise. As impressive as they were last week, they have been there and done that before. They did win four games a year ago, remember, including a memorable drubbing of the Steelers in the rain.

What they haven't done, ever, is parlay a victory into another strong performance the next week. Consistency? Forget it. Each of the Ravens' wins in 1996 was followed by at least two straight losses.

In other words, they have shown themselves capable only of playing an occasional strong game at home. Nothing more than that.

It all means they still haven't proved anything, really, even with that defeat of the Bengals.

Fans plunking down thousands for seats at the new stadium are going to want to see more than that, and today's game represents the Ravens' best chance yet to begin providing what their customers want and reworking their familiar, beatable image.

The Giants are a suitable opponent, a team with numerous holes, a new coach and a quarterback of questionable caliber in Dave Brown. They were terrific against the Eagles in their first game, then miserable last week against the Jaguars. Who knows if they're any good?

If that sounds familiar, there's a reason. The Giants and Ravens have a lot in common.

"They're a little like we are," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said this week. "They have a good core of veterans and they're playing some kids."

That's why it's such a big game for the Ravens.

They have to start beating the teams on their level if they're going to go anywhere in the watered-down NFL of the '90s.

They have to start showing some consistency.

And they have to start convincing themselves that they're better than the experts predicted.

Sure, they might be talking a bolder game after beating the Bengals, but deep down, they're still as unconvinced as anyone. That's what losing does to players. It turns them into doubters.

The only way to erase that doubt is to sell themselves on themselves, basically, and start winning more than occasionally.

Until they do that, the Ravens always will be the "same old Ravens," regardless of Marchibroda's protestations to the contrary.

That's why they have so much at stake today, so much to gain.

Winning NFL teams play their big games in December and January, but losing teams such as the Ravens play their big games now, when tones for the season are set and momentum is established, one way or the other.

The easy thing for them to do would be to lose today and go back to the basement from whence they came.

The hard thing to do, the challenging thing, would be to surprise people and win.

A win today would mean more to the Ravens than any other result in their brief history.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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