Ravens must seize chance to be heard loud, clear


January 03, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

AFTER FAILING two other times in big games this season, the Ravens get another shot to make a statement today when they play the Tennessee Titans in an AFC wild-card game at M&T Bank Stadium. The message they want to deliver is that they're back, and close to their Super Bowl-winning form of 2000.

So far the Ravens have sent mixed signals.

If the Ravens (10-6) win today, there won't be any confusion. We're talking instant respect. We're talking about Tennessee (12-4), a preseason favorite by many to win the Super Bowl.

These are the Titans, led by the Associated Press 2003 co-Most Valuable Player in Steve McNair and the league's top-ranked defense against the run.

"I think this is one of those games," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "There are certain games along the journey that allow you to judge where a team is. This is definitely one of them."

The Ravens have had two other opportunities in statement games this season, but showed they weren't ready. On Sept. 28, rookie quarterback Kyle Boller threw three interceptions in a 17-10 loss to Kansas City, the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. Then on Nov. 9, Boller, replacement Chris Redman and the entire offensive coaching staff had a meltdown against St. Louis, the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, in a 33-22 Rams win.

The Ravens have been a pleasant surprise this season, but they haven't beaten a team they weren't supposed to beat. Every time they've had the opportunity to step up, they've stepped back.

"You can look back on several games as statement games," Newsome said. "The K.C. game, the Rams game, the Cleveland game here a year ago, the Cincy game here a couple of weeks ago, and now this. We're going into new territory now. What we went through for 17 weeks last season, Tennessee went through it. We didn't get it done, they did, because they went further.

"We're in a different arena now; we're in the playoffs," said Newsome, who played for the late Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. "As Coach Bryant used to tell us: Play every play like it's the first play of the game, but also like it's the last play of your season. We have to play that way without panic, without trying to do too much. Once you get to this point, there is a whole new level of performance."

Hint, hint, Ravens: This isn't the regular season, and these aren't the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens have the third-youngest team in the league, but Newsome isn't using that as an excuse. If you talk to some other Ravens officials, they keep putting out the message that this team is almost a year ahead in the rebounding process, and how the future looks bright for the next five years, and about the development of Boller and blah, blah, blah, blah ...

Newsome is the Ravens' straight shooter. He knows the NFL is a watered-down illusion of what it used be. Instead of patting himself and fellow administrators on the back for rebuilding this team so far, he said expectations simply have been met.

If the Ravens want to go beyond, then win today. Then he'll spin a rosier picture.

"We anticipated getting in the playoffs in 2003; we're on target," Newsome said. "Our goal when we scorched the team after the 2001 season was to make sure we'd be a playoff contender in 2003. We have got into the party, and we don't want to go home."

Almost everyone around the league questions the Ravens' legitimacy. The Ravens have eight Pro Bowl players and three alternates on the AFC squad. They also have the league's offensive and defensive players of the year in running back Jamal Lewis and linebacker Ray Lewis.

But the Ravens also played in the weak AFC North, where they were the only team with a winning record. Despite enormous talent, the Ravens didn't win the division title until the final week of the season.

Of the teams on the Ravens' schedule, four made the playoffs and five had winning records, compared with seven with losing records.

You can understand the apprehension. Even Baltimoreans who don't follow the team closely haven't bought Ravens car flags so they can jump on the bandwagon.

The Ravens actually have as good a chance as most teams. No. 1 seed New England is the hottest team, and Kansas City has the most explosive offense.

Denver has been reborn since quarterback Jake Plummer returned from injury, Indianapolis has the most offensive weapons and the Titans have the most offensive balance.

All of the playoff teams have quarterbacks more experienced than the Ravens' Anthony Wright.

But the Ravens can run the ball, and they can stop the run. They may have more athletic talent than the remaining teams in the AFC or NFC.

But this team hasn't played consistently all season. Shoot, the Ravens even lost to the Oakland Raiders. But it's playoff time now. It's one and done.

There's no better time to make a statement.

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