Remember, it's Game 1, not a crystal ball

September 11, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

NOT THAT TOO much is riding on this one game, the very first of a four-month, 17-week season, but ...

"I'll throw my mantra out there again," Ravens coach Brian Billick said last week, warming up to his topic, gripping his pulpit, putting on a four-star performance for his audience. "I'm calling on fans to step to another level. I'll say it again, it's the In-Di-An-apolis Colts [yes, he'd already said it a couple of times and would say it a couple of more] that are coming into our stadium with a mentality ... "

And so on; we'll come back to that later. But Billick couldn't light up in front of the cameras that way at his pep rally/news conference if there weren't plenty of fan electricity for him to plug into.

That first visit by the too-familiar blue-and-white-and-horseshoe-clad bunch in 1998 was a pretty big panic, but this one, tonight at the stadium, might surpass it. Yes, it's the Colts, but it's also Peyton and national TV and a night kickoff and black uniforms and a team dragging around the label of Super Bowl favorites.

And, last but not least, another team believing, and being told, it can stake a claim to a Super Bowl, too, if everything ... goes ... just ... right. Beating the Colts, here and now, right out of the gate, would be a fairly clear sign that everything is, in fact, going just right. Right?

Sure, most would say. And losing to them, in comparison, would be a fairly clear sign that storekeepers had better place any sharp objects out of customers' reach, and that martial law is a viable option.

High expectations and high emotions can lead to massive letdowns, on every front. Which is why Billick, after his fire-and-brimstone sermon about being a true Ravens fan when the infidels attack ("Don't lose your nerve; keep up the noise, because we can wear them out. The fans can be a factor - Baltimore fans can be a factor in this game"), had to chuckle when asked if keeping Game 1 of 16 in perspective was a good idea.

"Having said that," he cracked, then continued: "My biggest task if we lose, as every team has to deal with [when] losing an opener, is to remind your team that you have 15 more games. My biggest task if we win will be to remind this team that you have 15 more games. That's universal."

It might apply to this team, for this game, more than any other. The possible exceptions, at this point, might be the Raiders and Patriots. Losing decisively on the road to the defending champions in a distraction-soaked opener on a Thursday night is not automatically cause for Raider Nation to despair.

Nor should the Patriots be anointed as the first threepeat Super Bowl champion based on that one victory, although you don't want to be too slow getting on that line. The season opener might be more of a snapshot game than any other, indicating only how ready a team was at the start, not how it might grow and improve between then and January.

Look at last season's Ravens opener in Cleveland. It unveiled flaws that did haunt them later. For the Browns, though, tons more flaws were camouflaged. Or so it seems, since the coach-GM was gone before the season had even ended.

Losing tonight, in other words, won't mean the Ravens have to tip the organization on one side and clean everything out. Winning, meanwhile, doesn't mean it's time to book flights from BWI to Detroit for February. It will be a heck of a test of everything the Ravens did to make themselves serious contenders, but it won't be the ultimate test.

The defense, for instance, appears to be a finished product, but Peyton Manning's beating it won't expose it as fraudulent. The offense doesn't look close to being finished - so doesn't it make sense to judge it a few weeks from now? Jamal Lewis and Todd Heap don't even have their legs under them yet, so it would be an upset if the true nature of their impact shows tonight.

Health willing, everything about the Ravens should be better at the end of the season than it is at the beginning, just because of how they're constructed and what they're trying to do. If they scrap their way to the AFC North title - a very reasonable expectation - they might see the Colts again, and who knows how much of what happens tonight will affect that matchup?

Regardless, Kyle Boller will be judged harshly tonight - a fact that prompted Billick's riff on the crowd reaction, as it was suggested that fans would unload on him the first time he slips up.

"I wouldn't know how to address a Baltimore Ravens fan ... [who] could even think twice about wanting to support the Indianapolis Colts by doing that," he said.

The bigger question: How do you address a Ravens fan ready to give up hope if the Colts win? Or a Ravens fan selling his liver on eBay to buy the Super Bowl ticket he knows he'll need once the Ravens win?

The best answer: January will be here before you know it, and when it is, the frenzy of September will seem like ancient history.

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