Ravens' success is put to road test

Facing reeling Raiders, first-place team looking to stay on playoff path

December 14, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

There was the fumble in overtime in Miami, the team record for clumsiness in St. Louis and the 17 points given away in Cincinnati.

Turnovers have proved to be disastrous in the Ravens' three-game road losing streak.

They have been the difference between the Ravens being a good road team and a questionable one. They could be the difference between the Ravens winning the division and missing the playoffs.

Holding a one-game lead over the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North, the Ravens (8-5) finish the season by playing two of the final three weeks on the road. If the surging team wants to bring its first division title home, it has to build momentum on the road today at Network Associates Coliseum, where the 3-10 Oakland Raiders are falling apart.

"Whatever mistakes you make to lose a game get compounded and multiplied when it's on the road," coach Brian Billick said. "It heightens the energy of the opponent and the crowd. Everything that you're fighting against on the road becomes enhanced when you make a mistake."

The Ravens have surfaced as a dangerous team in the AFC playoff race after sweeping a three-game homestand. What has been forgotten along the way is they haven't won on the road since Oct. 12 in Arizona, the only game away from home in which the Ravens didn't commit a turnover.

In the three road games after that, the Ravens committed 13 turnovers, which included handing the ball over a team-worst seven times in St. Louis. Of the 76 points scored against the Ravens in those road games, 43 came as a result of turnovers.

Mistakes could be the equalizer in a game that otherwise has the makings of another Ravens rout.

The Raiders have lost eight of their past nine games, a stretch defined by coach Bill Callahan saying, "We've got to be the dumbest team in America in terms of playing the game."

They might be the worst in terms of statistics. Oakland ranks in the bottom third of the NFL in 20 of 38 major offensive and defensive categories.

The two teams, which battled for the AFC championship here in January 2001, couldn't be going in more opposite directions. Over the past two weeks, the Ravens have outscored opponents 75-19 while the Raiders have been outscored 49-15.

"Trap game or not, we'll be ready to play," Billick said. "It's not a speed trap when you know the cop is sitting behind the sign. That is just stupidity if you are still speeding."

There is no bigger mismatch in today's game than Jamal Lewis, the league's leading rusher, going against the Raiders' run defense, which ranks second to last in the league. Lewis is producing 124.8 yards rushing per game, and Oakland is allowing 149.4 yards.

"It's the ultimate challenge to us," Callahan said.

The Raiders' defense has been decimated by injuries, placing five starters on injured reserve. The group is so thin that Tim Johnson - whose claim to fame is his Shannon Sharpe impersonation on the Ravens' Hard Knocks training camp show - is starting at middle linebacker.

"They might be called one of the worst teams against the run, but that is on paper," Lewis said. "They do some good things."

Playing the Raiders couldn't come at a better time for Lewis. He needs to average 126 yards over the next three games to become the fifth player in NFL history to reach 2,000 yards.

"It [the milestone] crosses your mind, but, you know, that is up to the linemen," Lewis said. "I am just going to run the football. I think they are more anxious to get that than I am. As long as they take care of things up front, it is attainable."

As Lewis makes a run for history, the Ravens need to set their record straight on the road. And no place is more notorious than Oakland's Black Hole, an end zone section that houses probably the scariest collection of fans in the NFL.

They wear all black, with assorted spiked shoulder pads and layers of face paint. They wave mock swords as they taunt and spit on opposing teams. They throw everything from batteries to chicken bones.

While the Raiders' worst season in six years has taken a big bite out of their fans, Billick has never been too concerned about venturing into Oakland.

"They have great fans, but that's not the toughest outdoor stadium in the league, nor are those the toughest fans," Billick said. "They dress the toughest. But you take a Raider fan and drop him in the middle of Philly, New York or Chicago and he'll get his butt kicked."

Learning how to fight on the road would bode well for the Ravens' near future. Currently the No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs, the Ravens would be guaranteed only one home game.

"If we're fortunate enough to make the playoffs, we're going to have to go on the road," Billick said. "You better learn to play on the road or you're not going to have the success you want."

Ravens today

Matchup: Ravens (8-5) vs. Oakland Raiders (3-10)

Site: Network Associates Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.

Time: 4:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 6 1/2

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