Ravens go to the brink against Jags

September 15, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Now the Ravens face an even bigger test, a team picked by many to reach the Super Bowl, a team this franchise has never defeated, not in Cleveland, not in Baltimore.

Beating the New York Jets on the road was one thing.

But can the Monsters of the Meadowlands win at Heartbreak Alltel?

The Ravens have lost four times to Jacksonville by a combined nine points -- six times by a combined 20 points if you include their 1995 season as the Browns.

They've made Rob Johnson a millionaire, blown double-digit leads, even tripped over each other's legs. But they've got every reason to believe that Sunday could be different, perhaps even their long-awaited breakthrough.

The Jaguars have won 15 of their past 17 games at Alltel Stadium, and they're seven-point favorites in this one. That's too many, considering the history of this series. Too many, considering that the Ravens easily could be 2-0.

Still, it's difficult to get too excited when the Ravens have put together only two winning streaks in two seasons, when they blew their home opener against Pittsburgh, when they're 0-4 against the Steelers and Jaguars on the road.

Ted Marchibroda wasn't about to predict victory yesterday, and neither would his players. Chances are, they'll be 1-2 after Sunday, which is all anyone could have expected. Then again, it's no longer out of the realm to imagine them 2-1.

"For us to beat Pittsburgh and Jacksonville the last two years, it had to be an upset," Marchibroda said yesterday. "I'm not sure it's in that category now."

Not when the Ravens' defense suddenly looks for real.

Two years ago in Jacksonville, they lined up an off-the-street linebacker named Sedric Clark against left tackle Tony Boselli on the game's final drive. Quarterback Mark Brunell marched the Jaguars for the winning score.

Brunell's edge is his speed, but the Ravens' front seven now ranks among the NFL's best in pursuit. The Jaguars have averaged 400 yards of offense in the series. But in the first two games, the Ravens held both the Steelers and Jets under 280 yards.

"They have a lot of weapons on offense. We have a lot to be concerned about, a lot to prepare for," defensive end Rob Burnett said. "But we can go down there and win. I think we match up pretty well."

The running game? The Jaguars have averaged 155 yards rushing in their first two games, but if the Ravens could stop Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin, they certainly can stop James Stewart.

The passing game? The Ravens held the Jets to 47 yards passing in the second half, intercepting Glenn Foley three times. Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell are top receivers, but so were Wayne Chrebet and Keyshawn Johnson.

Yes, Brunell is better than Foley, and the Jaguars' offensive line is better than the Jets'. But on the flip side, Rod Woodson, DeRon Jenkins and Duane Starks are the best set of corners the Ravens have ever had.

"The field is quite equal now," strong safety Stevon Moore said. "We've found out our identity on this football team, especially on defense. If we play physical, play aggressive, good things will happen."

The same could be true on offense, especially if the Ravens start Eric Zeier at quarterback. Zeier led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in the 29-27 loss at Jacksonville last season. And the Jaguars' secondary remains vulnerable.

The Ravens have never had trouble moving the ball on Jacksonville, averaging 360 yards of offense. The Jaguars, meanwhile, have yet to play especially well on defense this season, allowing Chicago 321 yards and Kansas City 364.

"If you look at our team, we're a much better football team, with much better chemistry," Zeier said. "We're more prepared now to be successful than at any time before."

So, will it happen? This isn't the first time the Ravens have been in position to make a statement. Indeed, their history suggests that they likely are headed for a breakdown.

They beat Oakland in their inaugural game in '96, then collapsed in Pittsburgh. They won back-to-back road games against the New York Giants and Tennessee last season, then faltered at San Diego, won at Washington, then lost to the Jets in overtime.

Their tendency was to get too carried away with their rare victories, but in Sunday's victory over the Jets, they demonstrated newfound resolve. The Ravens might have found a way to lose that game last season. This time, they provided the knockout punch.

"Our football team is different -- that's the biggest thing," Marchibroda said. "I can't believe that these guys, as hard as they've worked, that they're going to lay down after one game. This is a different football team than we've seen the last two years."

They can drive home the point Sunday, if they win at Heartbreak Alltel.

Four to forget

The Ravens are 0-4 against Jacksonville, and each loss was heartbreaking:

Nov. 10, 1996: Jaguars win, 30-27, at home when Mark Brunell runs for 1-yard touchdown with 41 seconds left after Ravens blow 14-point halftime lead.

Nov. 24, 1996: Jaguars win, 28-25, when Mike Hollis kicks a 34-yard field goal in overtime after Ravens blow 15-point fourth-quarter lead.

Aug. 31, 1997: Jaguars win, 28-27, after Ravens blow six-point fourth-quarter lead and fail to score on final three possessions.

Nov. 30, 1997: Jaguars win, 29-27, when Eric Zeier trips over Jonathan Ogden's leg trying to convert the tying two-point conversion with 1: 10 left.

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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