Will Ravens again start dive in Game 5?

October 10, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Ravens' .500 record through their first four games?

"Doesn't mean anything, really," safety Rod Woodson said.

If any team should know that, it's the Ravens.

Incredibly, they have never been under .500 after four games since coming to Baltimore in 1996. Their overall record in the season's first quarter is 9-7. Pretty respectable.

But they're 9-26-1 in the season's last three quarters.

Their true, losing colors have always come out after a first month of .500 or better.

In other words, crunch time for the Ravens starts now, with today's game against the Titans in Tennessee.

This is the part of the season in which they always have cratered, as evidenced by their 2-10 record in the schedule's second quarter since coming to Baltimore.

"I think we're good enough to do better [this season]," Woodson said. "But we have to go out and prove it."

Beating the Titans on the road will be difficult. The Titans are in first place in the AFC Central with a 3-1 record. They have won nine straight games against division opponents.

But somewhere in the coming weeks, if not today, the Ravens have to reverse their trend of appalling Octobers. Otherwise, Brian Billick's first season will end up resembling the three losing seasons that got Ted Marchibroda fired.

"I don't know what went on here before," Billick said, "but we're talking a lot about becoming more consistent."

Inconsistency did bring the Ravens down before. They couldn't sustain the early-season play that enabled them to reach .500.

Part of the problem was youth, and part was a sheer, old-fashioned lack of talent. Basically, the Ravens just weren't good enough to play .500 ball for 16 games.

This year's team isn't exactly intimidating, with an offense featuring castoffs such as Stoney Case and Qadry Ismail. But it has a better shot at hanging around .500 than prior Ravens teams because its defining qualities are a tough defense and a strong running game -- elements that tend to keep almost any team in any game.

If the defense and running game can maintain this level and Case and the rest of the offense can avoid turnovers and deliver a few key plays some of the time, the Ravens should stay within sight of .500 for longer this season.

Of course, that's a lot of ifs. The defense, ranked eighth in the league, probably will hold up, but who knows if Case will come through or running back Errict Rhett will continue his rebirth after two years on the bench?

And the overall margin of error is so thin that one key injury could ruin everything.

Still, the opportunity to raise the team's profile is there -- if not this week, then in coming weeks against the Chiefs and Bills (at home) and Browns (on the road).

"This is the part of the season when things start to shake out, and we're in pretty good shape for a team that started out 0-2," Woodson said. "We came back, won a couple of close games and here we are [at 2-2]. That's all you want from the first quarter of the season -- to survive. When I was in Pittsburgh, we always seemed to start 2-2. We never went 4-0."

But those Pittsburgh teams started 2-2, took off and reached the playoffs. They were for real. The Ravens always have started 2-2 or better and then retreated at an all-out sprint. They have never won Game 5, 6 or 7 in any season.

Two years ago, they took a 3-1 record into San Diego, blew a winnable game to the Chargers and didn't stop falling until they were 4-8-1.

Last year, they took a 2-2 record into a home game against the Titans (then the Oilers), blew another winnable game and found themselves at 2-6 just a few weeks later.

In other words, Game 5 has devastated the Ravens in their years here. And beating the Titans today -- on the road this time, and in a new stadium, no less -- will be tough, too.

"They're good," Woodson said. "But if we're going to get to the next level of how we're regarded, of how people perceive us, we have to win this type of game at some point. Good teams win on the road."

That's what the Ravens did last Sunday against the Falcons, the defending NFC champions. But two in a row might be a stretch for a team with a 6-20 career road record.

"I'm not thinking about the history because, let's face it, we're not talking about a long history here, just a couple of years," Billick said. "I'm just thinking about this year and this team. And I see a team that has improved every week. A team that's starting to feel good about itself."

There's nothing wrong about that; the Ravens could stand some self-confidence after all that losing.

But as their first three seasons demonstrate, it's a mistake to read too much into a 2-2 start.

The season is just starting.

Pub Date: 10/10/99

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