Ravens happy to escape desert with a win

October 13, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

TEMPE, ARIZ. --There was a tense 15-minute period during the third quarter yesterday when the Ravens' season was in limbo as team officials awaited results of an X-ray of running back Jamal Lewis' shoulder.

The X-rays came back negative. Within the next 60 minutes, the Ravens had defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 26-18, and almost everything was right with their world.

A few minutes later, coach Brian Billick checked the injury report, and the Ravens came out clean. He smiled and wiped the sweat off his forehead. The mission was completed.

When any team goes to Arizona, it just wants to come out with a win and no major injuries. On any other Sunday, post-game news conferences are about what went wrong and what went right.

But it's different in Tempe. The Cardinals have a poor fan base. The heat is at times unbearable. Next to the Cincinnati Bengals, they are the league's worst-operated franchise covering the past decade, and the Cardinals could be wandering in this desert for 40 years.

Just how bad is it?

About a week ago, the inept Cardinals turned their running back, Emmitt Smith, the league's all-time leading rusher, into a weeping soccer mom.

And the Ravens had to play them on the West Coast coming off a bye week. Talk about a setup.

But the Ravens survived.

"Arizona isn't that bad of a team," said left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. "The heat, the fans ... well, it's not the ideal situation to come play a game in. Is it Pittsburgh? No.

"No one wants to lose to a team that is 1-4 no matter who it is. I'm glad we took care of business and we're leaving the desert. The only desert I want to be in is Las Vegas," added Ogden, in reference to his offseason home.

That was the prevailing sentiment yesterday. Relief. The Ravens wanted to shower, eat, catch the bus to the airport and jump on a plane. See ya.

Who can blame them?

Game-time temperatures reached 96 degrees, and it climbed above 105 on the field. The heat may be the only reason fans don't wear bags over their heads.

There were only 24,193 (nearly a quarter of whom were Ravens fans) in attendance yesterday at Sun Devils Stadium, which made you feel as though you were at a major league baseball game or watching a Duke football game on Tobacco Road.

And get this: Two hours before the game, you could walk up to the box office without waiting in line and purchase a ticket for $15.

One of the best things that ever happened to Baltimore was Bill Bidwill's not moving his franchise there when he owned the team in St. Louis. It's no wonder he needed bodyguards to ride with him on his golf cart as he left the stadium yesterday.

"I had to watch my mouth, because everybody could hear," said Billick, laughing about the small crowd. Then he became serious.

"It [the game] had a different feel to it," Billick said. "It's unfortunate that it is that way. It's cumulative, all of that, the travel, the heat, coming off the bye, the circumstances around you playing here. I'm really glad to be leaving here with a win under some trying circumstances."

Billick knows about this place. He has been here, done that, back in 2000, the Ravens' Super Bowl season. Earlier this season, Green Bay came here and was upset, 20-13.

Billick and staff preached that message all week.

"You know what, it really is scary playing here," said Ravens tight end Todd Heap, who played in this stadium for Arizona State. "I've never seen the stadium like this, so empty. You have to be careful, because this is the type of game where you aren't expecting to play the best team in the NFL. This was the game we're supposed to win. You can't come up here and let things slip away because you took them lightly."

The Ravens looked like they might let that happen. Former Ravens quarterback Jeff Blake took the Cardinals on a six-play, 74-yard touchdown drive on their first possession.

But the Ravens' game plan was simple: run the ball and let the offensive line and Lewis (131 yards on 21 carries) win the game. Defensively, the Ravens wanted to shut down the run and force Blake to win the game.

Once that happened, they knew they had the Cardinals right where they wanted them, because Blake's arm can carry a team, but his brain can't. He has to be involved with a team that relies on a system, and not the quarterback, to win the game.

If you take away Blake's 29 scrambling yards, the Cardinals had only 61 rushing. Blake threw three interceptions, one that set up Matt Stover's 22-yard field goal in the second quarter and another that was returned 83 yards by Chris McAlister for a touchdown in the third quarter.

"They came out in the first drive, and they looked good," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. "There were a couple of Jeff balls that we didn't play well. We made a few adjustments, and it went our way. When they first came out, we didn't know what they were going to do; they have had no game plan. But you know something, Jeff is just going to be Jeff. You know what I mean."

Ravens rookie quarterback Kyle Boller didn't play well either. He completed only nine of 18 passes for 75 yards. At least three of his throws were dropped, including a possible touchdown pass of 20 yards to receiver Frank Sanders in the first quarter.

But the most disturbing aspect has to be Boller's inaccuracy -- from screen passes to fullback Alan Ricard to possible long touchdown passes over the middle to a wide-open tight end Terry Jones Jr. with 5:32 left in the half.

Boller also came close to ending a scoring opportunity by trying to force a pass to receiver Travis Taylor on a corner route in the end zone with 3:15 left in the first half. Billick once said you can coach mechanics, but you can't coach accuracy.

There were some other things that caused concern, such as the team's failure to score inside the red zone and the dropped passes. But that can all wait until later. As of late last night, the Ravens were just happy to pull off an escape.

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