Half a season, full of promise

With a 5-3 record and a two-game lead in the AFC North, the Ravens appear to be running toward the playoffs

Pro Football

November 07, 2003|By Jamison Hensly | Jamison Hensly,SUN STAFF

This year's Ravens seem like the little brother to their Super Bowl team

They are constantly being compared. They are constantly being overlooked.

Despite the same record at the halfway point as 2000 team, the Ravens find themselves tucked away in the shadow of their former selves along with the likes of the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patroits and Indianapolis Colts.

But what has been pushed aside is these Ravens have something that championship team never had at midseason - power. Sitting atop a division for the first time in November, the Ravens hold a two-game lead in the AFC North and an enviable view from the top.

"We control our destiny right now," Ravens general managher Ozzie Newsome said. "Maybe you shouldn't say that until Week 15 or 16. But right now, everybody has to catch up to us. We're leading the division. We don't have to depend on anybody to do any work for us in our division. All we have to take care of is our own business. We'll have three teams in the division wondering what the Ravens' scores will be."

While the rest of the division is looking at the scoreboard, the Ravens can't afford to look over their shoulders over the final eight weeks of the regular season.

"How your team handles the emotion of the scrutiny and the pressure of being a playoff team is your biggest concern as a coach in the making a playoff run," coach Brian Billick said.

10 reasons the Ravens will make the playoffs

1. A pitiful AFC North division

2. Ray Lewis' leadership

3. Offensive style of play with Jamal Lewis suits bad weather

4. Billick's history in November and December

5. A favorable second-half schedule

6. Todd Heap's big-play ability and increased vocal presence

7. The defense's dominance in 4th quarter

8. Special teams winning field-position battle

9. An improved pass defense

10. Want Art Modell to go out on top

Here are the 10 reasons why the Ravens' coming of age season should result in a playoff berth:

1. Pitiful AFC North

The rap on the Ravens is that they're a good team in a bad division. No other division has three teams with losing records, and there's no sign of a second-half renaissance.

The Cleveland Browns have a home-field disadvantage (1-3 at home this season) and have suspended leading rusher William Green for one game after he was arrested on charges of drunken driving and marijuana possession. The Cincinnati Bengals are 10-34 in November and December over the past six seasons and looked like the "Bungles" in Sunday's loss at Arizona.

The Ravens' biggest threat to the division title is probably the team furthest away. Three games behind the Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers haven't won since Sept. 21, but they have the easiest second-half schedule (teams are combined 23-42) of any team in the AFC North.

The Sporting News recently predicted the last-place Steelers to rebound and overtake the Ravens for the AFC North. But only one team in the NFL's modern era (since 1970) has advanced to the playoffs after starting 2-6.

2. Force of R. Lewis

If the Ravens face adversity, Ray Lewis has shown his ability to will his team to victory.

Although there have been questions whether he's as dominant a player after shoulder surgery, the All-Pro linebacker has been the answer at the end of games. He has made game-saving interceptions the past two weeks, single-handedly keeping the Ravens atop the division alone rather than in a three-way tie.

"If I had to sum it up, he just knows how to win," linebacker Peter Boulware said. "He knows how to get everyone on the field to rally around him. When he's the field, you're thinking, `We're going to win this thing.' "

3. J. Lewis homestretch

When the weather becomes bad, the Ravens become better. Their run-dominated style of play suits the winter months and is a great equalizer when the winds at M&T Bank Stadium get a little tricky.

The scary part is that running back Jamal Lewis, an NFL Most Valuable Player candidate, hits his stride in the last two months of the regular season.

In September and October, he has produced 88 yards a game. Over the next two months, his average leaps to 101 yards a game.

"In those months where it's cold, guys don't want to see you," the 240-pound power back said. "They don't want to hit you. We have a very physical style of play, and guys aren't able to match that on other teams."

4. The Billick factor

Although the offensive genius label has faded, Brian Billick still remains a mastermind of scheduling. His way of scaling back practices and meetings keeps his players as physically and mentally fresh as any team in the league.

Practices are gradually reduced throughout the season and include no hitting in December. Even the meetings are cut back by 15 minutes by the halfway point of the season.

The Ravens have used that to their advantage in November and December, owning a 23-10 record in those months - third best in the NFL since Billick's tenure began in 1999.

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