THERE ARE SOME Baltimore fans who believe the NFL has a conspiracy against the Ravens. It's not true, but the league doesn't do the Ravens any favors, either.
It's all about image.
The Ravens are a small-market team. They have an outspoken coach who has criticized officials, and their star player was once accused of double murder in Atlanta. The Ravens have the reputation of being big trash talkers, and if the Oakland Raiders are Public Enemy No. 1 in the NFL, the Ravens are 1a.
So when the league announced that the Ravens were going to play in the first playoff game Saturday against the Tennessee Titans after playing in the last regular-season game Sunday night, Ravens coach Brian Billick wasn't surprised.
Actually, it was just another motivational tool.
"It can't be me, 'cause I know they [league officials] really love me," said Billick, laughing. "I'm probably not the league's favorite head coach, but I should be. I contribute the most to their coffers. I ought to be their favorite.
"I may not be the media or TV's favorite coach, but they sure keep coming back to me for quotes and interviews. Quite frankly, let's look at the business end of it. We're a small-market team. I don't take it personally. Sometimes I find it amusing and you usually can find some kind of advantage for the us-against-the-world mentality."
Baltimore fans hate being dissed but seem to revel in having that chip on their shoulders. The league feeds that attitude by continuously slapping Baltimore around. The Ravens weren't on Monday Night Football this season, but three teams with worse or the same records a year ago were, including the Rams (7-9, same as the Ravens), Bears (4-12) and Cowboys (5-11).
Traditionally, the Super Bowl winner opens its next season on a Monday night. Tampa Bay did this season. So did New England the year before that. The Ravens didn't in 2001. As a matter of fact, six of their first nine games were on the road.
The league has made it difficult at times, just like it did in the expansion race in the 1980s when Baltimore lost out to Jacksonville and Carolina.
"It bothered me that while we were playing, Tennessee was preparing for us and having that advantage," Billick said. "It's not a big thing. It is what it is. The team playing the last game of the season finishing up after midnight now has to prepare on a short week. Well, that shows a lack of regard for what it takes to prepare. But that's not the league's obligation.
"I also find it interesting that they have the two possible MVPs [Jamal Lewis and Steve McNair], and the guy that should get the MVP [Ray Lewis], on the least prime time of the four slots. The fact that we weren't on Monday Night Football tells you how we're regarded
"We [the Ravens] are a reflection of Baltimore. We're stuck between Philly and Washington, and the mentality that goes with that. We're just little Charm City, but we like our little enclave here."
Billick hasn't endeared himself to the league. Before the Ravens played Cleveland for the first time in 1999, Billick suggested that the referees might be intimidated and favor the Browns. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue wasn't happy.
This season Billick has openly criticized instant replay several times, once with an expletive-laced tirade. He got fined again.
Billick also isn't a favorite among his peers. He has been accused of running up the score on his opponents, especially when he was the offensive coordinator in Minnesota with the most productive offense in league history.
Unless you're around Billick often, you can't figure him out, which is why the national media dislike him. They have never forgiven him for telling them how to do their jobs before the Super Bowl in January 2001.
Does Billick think he is the smartest guy in the room? Yes. Can he be condescending? Absolutely. He is competitive, stubborn, sometimes overly sensitive and impulsive. But he isn't malicious and nasty. Actually, he has a good sense of humor.
But he's on the bad boy list. Another person who will remain on that list is Ray Lewis. The stigma of the double murder trial in Atlanta in 2000 still follows him, and it will for the rest of his career, although murder and assault charges against Lewis were dropped in an agreement in which he plead guilty to obstruction of justice.
Fans across the country also remember the Ravens as the trash-talking crew that had perhaps the best defense ever in 2000. That veteran team talked all the way to the title. The two who did the most talking were tight end Shannon Sharpe and Lewis. Lewis also apparently has angered teams by staring and screaming at their sideline after making tackles.
Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward recently said every team in the league hates the Ravens.
"Ray Lewis doesn't do anything that Hines Ward doesn't do," Billick said. "At the end of the day, you're just glad that he is on your team. ...
"All of this talking stuff is overblown a little bit by the media. This team has its own personality. The fact is that we don't have a long-standing history. We've only been here for eight years; we're like an expansion team. We have to keep everything in perspective."
But then Billick adds with a smile: "I've said it half-jokingly about a million times: Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't really after me."
Matchup: Tennessee Titans (12-4) vs. Ravens (10-6)
Site: M&T Bank Stadium
When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)
Series: Ravens lead 8-4