Billick response easy to guess: Nice work, but job's not done

Ravens 31, Bengals 13

Nfl Week 14

December 08, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

ONLY MINUTES AFTER the team's biggest win of the season, the Ravens already were preparing for the stretch run that will take them through Oakland, Cleveland and then end here in the regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's why there wasn't any chest-thumping or high-fiving in the locker room yesterday.

There is still a lot of unfinished business, and the key is to remain focused, even if it's against three teams that are out of playoff contention. In the case of the Raiders, rigor mortis has begun to set in.

"The Oakland game could potentially become a setup game, and we have to be aware of the pitfalls," said Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens' veteran left offensive tackle. "We'll be all right, but we can't get too complacent. We can't get too happy with ourselves during the next three games."

After smacking around the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-13, yesterday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens took over sole possession of first place in the lowly AFC North with three games remaining. It was an impressive win over a Bengals team that looked and performed as if it had played three straight games on the road.

The Ravens' defense was dominant for the second straight week, forcing five turnovers, good enough for 21 points. The team got running back Jamal Lewis (180 yards on 30 carries) untracked and the offense controlled the tempo of the game for the first time in about five weeks.

When this happens, the Ravens are tough to beat, whether the starting quarterback is Kyle Boller, Chris Redman or Anthony Wright. As much as some things have changed, the team's formula for success will remain the same as long as it has Ray Lewis on defense and Jamal Lewis on offense.

But before the Ravens start talking a lot about the playoffs, they have to become focused on the next three weeks, when they play teams that have little to play for except pride.

Oakland (3-10) laid down for the Steelers (5-8) yesterday in a 27-7 Pittsburgh victory. Cleveland (4-8) might get rolled by the St. Louis Rams tonight and has been horrific at home, where the Browns will play the Ravens in two weeks.

The Ravens' toughest opponent could be themselves.

"By no stretch of the imagination is this thing over," said coach Brian Billick. "As big as this game is, it means nothing if we don't follow up the next three games. Marvin [Lewis, Bengals coach] is telling his group the exact thing, and rightfully so. Unless you win and it puts you in, all it does is give you the opportunity. This team is aware of that, and I think they understand that."

Billick will remind his players, and it will be reinforced by such veterans as Ogden, Peter Boulware and Ray and Jamal Lewis. Next week is the perfect setup game.

The Ravens were at their lowest point three weeks ago after a 9-6 overtime loss to Miami, a defeat that ripped at the fiber of the team. They rebounded with the miraculous, come-from-behind victory over Seattle, and now have turned in decent back-to-back performances against San Francisco and Cincinnati.

Traveling to Oakland is the perfect trap right now for a team feeling good about itself.

The Raiders are at the opposite end of the spectrum. The players don't like the coach. The coach recently called his team the dumbest in America. Last week, a psychologist volunteered to put the entire team of geriatrics on one big couch for a case study.

"I don't think the Raiders are going to die," said Ray Lewis. "The West Coast is going to be a hard test for us. But we've done it before, and then we've got to come back and win in Cleveland. The thing is to stay focused and play our type of game. That's the way you want it. This is December, and we don't want it any other way."

A realistic scenario has the Ravens and the Bengals winning next week, especially with Cincinnati playing host to the 49ers (6-7) at home. But the Bengals have to travel the next week to St. Louis, where the Rams are virtually unbeatable on their artificial surface, and the Ravens could possibly pop the champagne corks in Cleveland if they win.

Ogden expects the Browns to play hard, especially after the Ravens pounded them, 33-13, in Week 2.

"Cleveland is going to play hard because we're in the same division and because Jamal ran for 295 yards against them," Ogden said. "Pittsburgh is going to play hard because they're Pittsburgh."

The Steelers hate the Ravens. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher isn't really fond of Billick, either. The last time the Ravens left Pittsburgh, Ray Lewis, teammate Corey Fuller and Steelers linebacker Joey Porter were involved in an altercation in the stadium parking lot.

If it does come down to the last game, the Steelers would like nothing better than to eliminate the Ravens on a Sunday night game in Baltimore on national television.

Billick will remind his players of these little things over the next three weeks. He believes his team can handle the situation, but it's the third-youngest squad in the NFL. Last year, the Ravens, with 18 rookies and first-year players, didn't come through in the crunch, losing their final two games and being eliminated from the playoffs.

"We didn't get it done last year, but I think we have more experience this time," Ogden said. "At this time of year, every player has to remember that every game is a big game."

Billick said: "We've learned some lessons with these guys. We've got just enough of the former group [from the Super Bowl-winning team] who can disseminate that information, so to speak. The good thing right now is that we have an opportunity, and we're going to do our part, organizationally and my staff, to prepare our team to take advantage of it."

Bring on the stretch run.

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