Given stage, Ravens must show the play should go on

January 07, 2002|By Mike Preston

THE RAVENS HAVE to earn their way into the playoffs tonight against the Minnesota Vikings, and that's the way it should be.

The defending Super Bowl champions shouldn't have been able to limp into the postseason because the Seattle Seahawks or the New York Jets lost yesterday. They need to prove that they belong.

So far this season, the Ravens have only proved that they are just another average team in the National Football League. But tonight they can show they are one of the league's top 12 teams.

This is great. The game is on Monday Night Football. It's Brian Billick against his former team, for which he once served as offensive coordinator and helped Minnesota set league offensive records. The Vikings still have one of the league's best offenses, and the Ravens have one of the best defenses.

The pressure is on.

"I hope we have to win Monday night to get into the playoffs," Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said last week. "I want Seattle and the Jets to win on Sunday. I don't want to get in because somebody else is unfortunate. I want a sense of urgency and the national spotlight on us, and I want to see how we respond. It would be just like in the playoffs. Do or die. Force us to make it happen. That's what we need."

Sharpe got his wish: Jets 24, Raiders 22. Seattle 21, Kansas City 18.

The Ravens have no one to blame for this predicament but themselves. They lost to the Cleveland Browns this season, not once, but twice. That's inexcusable. And they also lost to the Cincinnati Bengals, another unforgivable act.

The Ravens are a team that has struggled with pass coverage, an aging defensive line, a quarterback who should have been benched several times this season and an offensive line that should be gatekeepers at the Baltimore Zoo.

Two weeks ago, this may have been a gimme game against Minnesota. The Vikings seemed to shut it down in a 33-3 loss to Jacksonville on Dec. 23, but they rebounded and played hard in a 24-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers last week. But that's Green Bay. The Vikings would play the Packers hard in a parking lot.

But when Minnesota owner Red McCombs fired Dennis Green last week after 10 years as head coach, he put a whole new spin on this game: Which Vikings team will show up?

Usually when a head coach is fired, two things happen. Either the team plays extremely well, or it totally bombs. The X-factor seems to be interim head coach Mike Tice. If the players think he is a legitimate candidate to become the next head coach, they'll play hard.

If they believe he is just a stopgap measure, then the Vikings will be thinking about loading up their U-Haul trucks instead of the game.

Who knows where receiver Randy Moss' head will be? If he perseveres with a rib injury, will receiver Cris Carter play hard, or be more concerned about playing here in Baltimore next season? (By the way Cris, most of your former teammates in Minnesota now playing for the Ravens don't want you here. Something about you being a disruptive force.). Will the Vikings try to win one as a sendoff present for Green?

"Our main objective of getting back to the playoffs is in our hands," Billick said. "You can't ask for more than that. Now, it might not be the way some people thought it would happen, and there were some disappointments along the way. But, we can get back to the playoffs and see what happens. We control that."

The odds are in the Ravens' favor because they're playing against Spergon Wynn, the team's No. 3 quarterback who has thrown only one touchdown pass, thrown four interceptions and completed just 50 percent of his passes in the past two games.

But with the Ravens, you never know what's going to happen. They've lost two of their past three games, and struggled in a 16-0 win against the Bengals on Dec. 23.

A year ago, the defense was dominating, Jamal Lewis had become the featured running back and place-kicker Matt Stover and punter Kyle Richardson gave the Ravens one of the strongest kicking games in the league. The Ravens went into the playoffs kicking in the door, and walking with a swagger.

There is no strut this time around, just a team struggling. It's a new year, and a different team, one that has a lot of holes.

But the Ravens can make a playoff run. Only Pittsburgh and New England have separated themselves from the other teams in the AFC, and are riding momentum going into the playoffs. There isn't a dominant quarterback: Vinny Testaverde, Trent Dilfer, the Ravens' Elvis Grbac (Vinny Jr.), Jay Fiedler are all in the same class.

But a game like this might give the Ravens the edge they need going into the playoffs. They haven't played with one since beating Denver and Tennessee in weeks 3 and 4.

The Ravens have talked about earning a right to be a playoff team, now they get a chance to prove it. The only people accountable tonight are the Ravens.

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