Ravens chase foothold on steep playoff slope

Slumping Giants present chance to re-emphasize defense, running game

Pro Football

December 12, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The Ravens' trip down memory lane with the New York Giants today represents the best chance to right their course to the playoffs.

Survival overshadows sentiment at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens' focus is regrouping from a two-game losing streak, not the teams' first regular-season meeting since the January 2001 Super Bowl.

Never before have the Ravens veered so far from their championship identity this late in the season.

Their defense is crumbling in the fourth quarter. Their offense is failing to control the clock. Even their once-dangerous special teams are giving away field position with frequent fumbles.

If the Ravens (7-5) intend on upsetting one of the AFC's elite - the Indianapolis Colts or Pittsburgh Steelers on the road the next two weeks - they must first prove they can handle the reeling Giants (5-7), losers of five straight games.

"This is a steppingstone for us," said cornerback Chris McAlister, one of six Ravens starters from that Super Bowl team who will play today. "This is a chance to grind our feet back into the ground. Not to say we're looking past the Giants, but we know we have greater challenges ahead of us."

With four games remaining in the regular season, the Ravens are tied for the sixth and final AFC wild-card spot with the Denver Broncos and are one game ahead of the Buffalo Bills, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Whether they break free of the crowd and reach the playoffs could hinge on beating the Colts or the Steelers, but they have to beat the Giants first.

"We're not in a position to overlook anybody by a long stretch," coach Brian Billick said. "I couldn't even begin to imagine that letting up would be in [the players'] consciousness one little bit."

To make the postseason, the Ravens have to fare better in the final quarter of the regular season than they have in the fourth quarters of games recently.

The Ravens have allowed 39 fourth-quarter points in their two-game skid after giving up 55 in their first 10 games. In last week's 27-26 loss to the Bengals, the Ravens surrendered 200 yards passing and three touchdowns in the final 15 minutes.

"To win in this league, you have to have a great defense," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Coming down the stretch, if we need to win, I would put money on my defense every time."

Said Billick: "I have got a huge amount of faith in the defense. We're not going to panic. They know the mistakes we've made. We know how we left ourselves vulnerable, and we'll do everything we can not to let that happen again."

This year's defense doesn't have the same luxury as the record-breaking one of 2000. Back then, the offense was a run-oriented one that controlled the clock for an average of 33 minutes. This season, the Ravens are averaging 28 1/2 minutes of possession time, seventh-worst in the NFL.

That has meant longer days for the Ravens' defense. In each of the past four games, the defense has been on the field for at least 63 plays.

The drastic change in time of possession is a result of the Ravens running the ball less effectively (averaging 122.8 yards this season compared to 137.4 in 2000) and converting less often on third downs (33.5 percent).

"[Time of possession] is one of the biggest stats for us," right guard Mike Flynn said. "In 2000, we weren't the greatest passing team but we always seemed to convert the third-and-twos or hit the third-and-long when we had to. We have to get back to controlling the clock."

If the Ravens have their way, they could be turning back the clock to 2000 against the Giants with a powerful running game and a suffocating defense.

With running back Jamal Lewis (sprained ankle) expected to play a minor role, the Ravens likely will rely on Chester Taylor to gash the NFL's 26th-ranked run defense.

And playing against Giants rookie quarterback Eli Manning in his fourth career start, the Ravens' defense will be aiming to harass this year's No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

Manning acknowledged that he would continue to see teams unleashing a heavy blitz until he proves he can beat it.

Manning's initiation has been brutal. He has completed just 41.3 percent of his passes and has failed to throw for more than 162 yards in a game.

In three starts - a total of 158 offensive plays - Manning has led just one touchdown drive.

"He's a talented quarterback, but he leads you where you believe the ball is going to go," McAlister said. "Getting good timing is the nature of every young quarterback coming into the NFL."

Now, with the regular season winding down, the same question goes for the Ravens. What will it take for them to get their timing back as a team?

"We're 7-5, we have the Giants coming up at home and we have two of the top teams in the AFC after that," Ray Lewis said. "In football, I don't think you can ask for a better scenario if you want to be tested, if you want to find out how good you are."

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