Top 12, yes, but Super? Not yet

January 08, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

THERE IS A belief in the NFL that once a team makes it to the playoffs, almost anything can happen and any team can win the Super Bowl. Well, a lot of things have to happen for the Ravens to get there again.

The Ravens gained the final AFC playoff berth with a 19-3 win against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football last night, and at last did away with this ridiculous notion of the Trent Dilfer curse.

Where is Dilfer now? Probably on his way to an off-season house in Arizona or California. At least his arm will be rested after playing sparingly this season. Last year it was sore and about to fall off as the Ravens entered the postseason.

So, no more Dilfer stories.

What these 2001 Ravens are about is a team that managed to overcome major injuries to top impact players such as running back Jamal Lewis, offensive tackle Leon Searcy and defensive end Michael McCrary, and still fulfill a major goal of gaining a playoff berth.

They aren't the same team as last season, far from it. But last night they moved from the average category into the Top 12.

Will the Ravens be able to advance deep into the playoffs? Probably not, but at least it now becomes interesting. There were some bright spots in last night's game, like the Ravens' tough running game paced by running back Terry Allen (133 yards) and the lack of turnovers by quarterback Elvis Grbac (no interceptions, party at PSINet today at noon).

Ravens head coach Brian Billick will try to stick to that formula the rest of the postseason, and that's his best chance because he doesn't want to put the fate of the team in Grbac's hands, and rightfully so.

But with the Miami Dolphins coming up next week, you get a sense that the Ravens are going to need more of an effort than they have given all season, and you didn't get that sense of urgency last night even though the Ravens' season was down to a one-game elimination.

Minnesota was a team waiting to fold, shower, dress, pack up and hit BWI. The Vikings had a quarterback named Spergon Wynn who really didn't belong in the NFL. He couldn't throw the deep ball, the short one and didn't even attempt a bomb to the league's top receiver, Randy Moss. The Vikings offense was nothing more than a bag of a few tricks, and eight end arounds to Moss might have produced more yardage.

Yet the Ravens still had problems putting the Vikings away. Maybe they have added another chapter to the book on winning ugly.

But some of this has to disturb Billick.

Just as disappointing was the way the Ravens rushed for more than 200 yards, but couldn't convert on short-yardage runs inside the red zone. The low point came in the second quarter when the Ravens had six plays inside the 3, including three straight from the 1, and all they could manage was a 20-yard field goal by Matt Stover with 6 minutes and 29 seconds left in the half.

The Ravens also got stuffed from the Minnesota 2 on a third-and-one run by Allen with 4:02 left in the third quarter. Stover had to convert on another 20-yarder.

"It's very frustrating not being able to punch it in," said Billick. "But we had Brook [running back Jason Brookins] getting back into it, and he may have missed a couple of angles which could have gotten him in."

There were some other problems, like Kyle Richardson's erratic punting and bad snaps from new long snapper Dale Hellestrae. But the Ravens didn't want to hear about any negatives last night, just the positive.

You have to applaud the game plan. After trying to hit the long strike early, the Ravens Dilferized Grbac against a team that was ranked 27th against the run and had allowed 139.1 rushing yards a game.

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis pointed out that the Ravens shut down Moss and Cris Carter, but did not mention the ineptness of Wynn. Maybe that's what the Ravens need: a little false hope and tons of optimism to build that swagger going in against the Dolphins. Miami looks an awful lot like the Ravens, but the Dolphins' defense has much better cornerbacks.

The Ravens won't be able to dominate with their running game. Next week, Grbac is going to have to make plays because the aging legs of Allen won't be enough. It will be Miami quarterback Jay Fielder against Grbac, and which one will make the most mistakes.

But Billick says the Ravens are developing the form of a year ago. Lewis agrees.

"We came into this game and knew our mind-set," said Lewis. "We knew what kind of offense they had. They have a lot of weapons with Cris and Randy. We set the foundation and did what we had to, getting the ball back to our offense. Offense wins games, defense wins championships. Just ride us baby, we'll get you there."

"The last three weeks our defense has showed that mettle, and we're returning to form," said Billick. "Any of the six teams have to feel good about their chances right now. Yeah, we feel good, and we'll go in with a swagger. If you don't, you'll [get beat.]"

It's to that point now. Almost anything can happen. But it's going to take a lot for the Ravens to repeat.

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