To grease skids, Ravens must knuckle down, wax Oilers

October 11, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

You want to earn respect, you've got to beat the Tennessee Oilers. You want to dominate at home, you've got to beat the Tennessee Oilers. You want to talk playoffs, you've got to beat the Tennessee Oilers.

You've got to do it today, at Camden Yards, before a sellout crowd. You've got to do it to go above .500 for the first time since Week 5 of last season. You've got to do it because the next three games -- at Pittsburgh, at Green Bay, home against Jacksonville -- are absolute back-breakers.

The Ravens' task could not be any clearer -- beat Tennessee, steal one of the next three, enter the second half 4-4. It won't be easy. It never is in the NFL. But today is a measuring stick. Are the Ravens contenders or pretenders? Today, we start to find out.

"With the schedule we have in front of us, they're almost all musts now," coach Ted Marchibroda said. "We can't afford to fall back, we really can't. It's been that way because of the schedule, right from the beginning of the year."

At Pittsburgh: The Ravens/Browns haven't won at Three Rivers Stadium since 1989.

At Green Bay: Before their Monday night debacle against Minnesota, the Packers had won 31 straight at Lambeau Field, including postseason.

Home against Jacksonville: The Ravens/Browns have yet to beat the Jaguars in seven tries.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Today is Tennessee.

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis is still out, but basically, the Ravens have no excuses. They're playing a 1-3 team. They've got a hotter, healthier quarterback. They beat Tennessee twice last season by a combined score of 57-29.

The Ravens' concern is that the Oilers are desperate. Marchibroda believes they're better than they showed in losing three straight to San Diego, New England and Jacksonville. But they can forget the playoffs if they fall to 1-4.

"It's a bigger game for the two teams than what it appears to be," Marchibroda said, knowing that the winner might look back on this game as a turning point, and the loser might look back on it as a knockdown punch.

If the Oilers win, they can move into playoff contention by winning their next two games at home against Cincinnati and Chicago. If the Ravens lose, they will fall to 1-3 in the division -- and possibly 1-5, given the long odds of defeating Pittsburgh or Jacksonville.

But the Ravens shouldn't lose.

Both Tennessee quarterbacks are coming off injuries -- Steve McNair a hip pointer, Dave Krieg an Achilles' tendon. Running back Eddie George is averaging only 2.9 yards per carry. Wide receiver Yancey Thigpen has caught only one second-half pass the last two games.

This team appears a step behind the Ravens, still finding ways to lose. The Oilers' only victory is over Cincinnati. They blew halftime leads to Jacksonville and New England. They've outscored opponents 42-33 in the first half, been outscored 48-26 in the second.

The Ravens' game plan should be to stop George and force McNair to beat them. McNair hasn't proved capable of holding leads. And the Oilers haven't thrown downfield consistently enough to prove they can mount comebacks.

On the other hand, the Tennessee defense is experienced, and safeties Blaine Bishop and Marcus Robertson are Pro Bowl types who could present problems for both Ravens quarterback Eric Zeier and running back Priest Holmes.

This is a pivotal test for Zeier, against a team that blitzes often and stacks defenders up front. He threw a career-high three touchdown passes in the Ravens' 21-19 victory over the Oilers last Dec. 14. McNair was sacked three times and intercepted once in that game.

Put it all together, and everything points toward the Ravens -- if they grasp what is at stake. They've got a history of following breakout performances with clunkers. Indeed, they've put together only two winning streaks in two-plus seasons.

The Bengals game was an absolute must -- a loss would have dropped the Ravens to 1-3, and put Marchibroda's job in jeopardy. But in its own way, this game is just as important. A win would give the Ravens enough confidence to win one of the next three. A loss could send them into disarray.

"I think there's more of an urgency," defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said. "Ted has talked about winning one, losing one. We've been up and down. We need to get on a roll, win three or four or five in a row."

Won't the schedule make that impossible?

"We've got to get healthy. We've got to stay healthy. We've got to be consistent. If we do those three things, we'll be fine," Siragusa said.

"I don't care who we play. If we get the offense and defense to both have good games, there's not a team in the league that can stay with us."

Strong words, but now the Ravens must walk the walk.

If you want to earn respect, if you want to dominate at home, if you want to talk playoffs, you've got to beat the Tennessee Oilers.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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