Wary fans' fingers poised to push that panic button

October 02, 2005|By RICK MAESE

Wear your Jamal Lewis jersey. Paint your face. Warm up some pizza rolls. Game time: remote control, your favorite snack and a beverage on one side. Lucky Ray Lewis bobblehead doll and panic button on the other.

It's not the most comfortable way to watch a game, but there's reason to be nervous today when the New York Jets square off against the Ravens. Every move will be scrutinized more closely than a surgeon's first bypass operation. We're looking for hints, and they'll all be on display today.

It might sound a bit funny, but Week 4 sure feels like judgment day. We'll learn whether that group of players that slipped on Ravens colors those first two weeks is really the same team that many expected to be among the AFC's very best. Or can they possibly really be this bad?

"We have a long season ahead of us," defensive end Terrell Suggs said, "and there is no reason to push the panic button."

I've never seen a panic button. Couldn't describe it to you if you led me by the hand into a Sharper Image store and pointed out a whole shelf of panic buttons.

I can tell you there's no reason to hit such a button after an 0-2 start. But I also know that an 0-3 start for the Ravens would be reason enough to pound that little button so the alarms echo at Owings Mills for a long, long time.

A game like today's seems to be just what the Ravens need right now. The struggling Jets are one of the few teams with an offense worse than Baltimore's. Their top two quarterbacks won't be anywhere near the huddle. And their running game has struggled.

It seems like a perfect foe for the Ravens - which is exactly why this game is dangerous.

When you looked over the schedule before the season began, it was easy to understand that Indianapolis and Pittsburgh would be big games. But in the NFL, it's the lesser opponents, like the Jets, that stand out. Those are the games that often prove to carry the biggest consequences.

Losing to a team like the Jets at a time like this - coming off two embarrassing losses to open the season - would nearly drain all hope. You hate to assign too much importance to a game this early in the season, but today all of those preseason expectations are on trial. After four quarters with the Jets, we'll have a pretty good idea of what is reasonable to expect from this Ravens team.

"You don't come into a season and ask to go 16-0," linebacker Ray Lewis said last week. "You just don't. I don't walk into the season saying, `I'm going to go 16-0.' So whether your losses come sooner or later, they're going to come."

Not exactly. Momentum means something in this league. Early games foreshadow late games. They provide meaning and context for December.

In the first two weeks, we kept a close eye on the Ravens' quarterback. Today the focus is on the backfield. With a powerful back in Jamal Lewis, there's no reason for the Ravens to be ranked last in the league in rushing.

Whether or not fullback Alan Ricard is healthy enough to play today, the Ravens must establish a running game. Everything from this point hinges on that.

Entering the season, the ground game was the only given offensively. Now there are no sure things. Through two games, the Ravens have played like a team that has more talent on its coaching staff than its roster.

A win today will only provide hints. It might not be fair, but a win doesn't carry a lot of meaning. A loss, however, would mean everything.

Players know standings, records and precedents. Every Ravens player can remind you that the 2001 Patriots started 0-2 and still won the Super Bowl.

Every player also knows that no team has started the season 0-3 and won a championship.

"If you're thinking that far, that's too much thinking," Ray Lewis said. "I just have the Jets to deal with. I don't worry about 0-3 and all that. I've got a 60-minute ballgame. If I'm worried about 0-3 and trying to tackle Curtis Martin at the same time, I'm playing the wrong game."

That's the right approach. Be in the game. Be in the moment. And afterward, look to either side of you. Then you'll know whether to grab another pizza roll or hit that panic button.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Points after/Rick Maese

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