Teams wince at thought of running into Billick's crew

Ravens 13, Steelers 10

Nfl Week 17

December 29, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

THE TEAM THAT other NFL teams didnM-vt want in the playoffs got in yesterday. When the Cleveland Browns defeated the Cincinnati Bengals M-y to give the Ravens the AFC North title M-y there was a pause around the league.

Uh, oh - here come the Ravens.

Nobody wants to play this team. The Ravens can run the ball, which New England and Tennessee can't do. They can stop the run, which Kansas City and Indianapolis can't do. They're young and so unpredictable, a helter-skelter outfit that won another ugly game last night, 13-10, over the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium.

Pressure?

There is none on the Ravens (10-6), who are the third-youngest team in the NFL. But you can bet there is some on Indianapolis and quarterback Peyton Manning, who still has to prove he can win a playoff game. There is also heat on Kansas City, which got off to a great start. Denver is always under the gun because it has The Genius in coach Mike Shanahan, and simply because it's Denver.

As for Tennessee, the Ravens' opening-round playoff opponent Saturday, the Titans want to take one more step from a year ago, when they played in the AFC championship game.

The Ravens, in their second year of rebuilding, can play loose.

"If we don't turn the ball over, all things being equal, we can beat anybody," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "That's why we're so scary."

Said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis: "The last time we had that philosophy, we went to the Super Bowl. With Jamal [Lewis] running like that and our defense playing the way it is, I've said all along we're just going to be hard to beat.

"It's not about boasting, it's not about bragging, but we're just a physical football team. We love to play old-school football. That's the way we love to play and hopefully it will work."

It would seem the Ravens are a year, maybe two, from a serious Super Bowl run. Other teams have better passing games and quarterbacks who are more capable of making big plays than the Ravens. But Super Bowl champions are usually teams that are balanced.

New England is the most balanced team in the AFC, but Billick says his team is not far behind.

"What makes us scary is balance, and I'm talking about balance within the sub-groups of the larger group," he said. "Defensively, we can rush you. We can stop your run and we can cover you downfield. I don't know whom you're going to throw at. Chris McAlister? Gary Baxter is pretty damn good. It's not like you can come into the game saying we're going to throw at this person or that person. Where is that weakness?

"Offensively, our strength is obviously the running game. The passing game is limited, but there is balance in the sense that Marcus Robinson, Travis Taylor and Todd Heap have done just enough that if you come after us, unless you have shutdown [cornerbacks], then you're going to worry about the big, vertical pass play or a jump ball with Travis or Marcus. We don't have balance like some teams, but at least enough of it."

The Ravens got a break yesterday with the Bengals' loss, but would have gotten a bigger one if Houston had beaten Indianapolis. A Colts loss would have had the Ravens playing host to Indianapolis.

The Ravens would batter the Colts, who are soft, into submission. Tennessee will be more of a challenge. The Ravens have not lost to the Titans in their past five meetings, but the Eagles owned Tampa Bay until the Bucs won the NFC championship last year in Philadelphia.

A major key will be Titans quarterback Steve McNair. If he is healthy and has mobility, he can hurt the Ravens. Otherwise, the Titans won't be able to move the ball. They can't run against the Ravens. There aren't many teams remaining in the playoffs that can.

Who can?

Green Bay can because of Ahman Green, who has a cutback style similar to Jacksonville's Fred Taylor. The Packers also have enough muscle to push the Ravens around inside.

But every AFC team remaining in the playoffs runs laterally, using stretch plays. That doesn't work against the Ravens because linebackers Ray Lewis and Ed Hartwell and defensive linemen Tony Weaver and Marques Douglas run so well.

The only team left in the AFC that could run against the Ravens is the Ravens, who have the biggest offensive line in the league and running back Jamal Lewis, who should be the league's Most Valuable player.

"I think we are better offensively now than we were in 2000 in our ability to run the ball," Billick said. "We could run the ball OK then, but against good teams, it was tough sledding. But now, we're running the ball against good teams when we want."

Being able to run and stop the run is a pretty good combination. The Ravens' special teams have also played well. Actually, except for two long runs by Oakland and Kansas City - one for a touchdown - and Pittsburgh's fake punt for a touchdown last night, the special teams have been superb, especially on coverage.

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