Ravens seek big win to build steam for '06

Victory over playoff-contending Vikings tonight would boost confidence

December 25, 2005|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

Along with the wintry chill, an air of desperation will fill M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens play the scandal-ridden Minnesota Vikings in a prime-time matchup tonight.

The Vikings (8-6) are battling for their playoff lives, while the Ravens (5-9) are fighting for their future.

Their home finale represents the Ravens' last chance to gain a critical confidence boost heading into next season.

The Ravens don't have much to show in this dismal season except for four wins over last-place teams and another over a Pittsburgh Steelers team starting a third-string quarterback.

If they can beat a playoff contender like the Vikings, it could become a springboard for better things to come.

"This game means a lot to them, but it means more to us," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "It's for our momentum, our energy moving into next season."

The Ravens' final stretch run has often foreshadowed how the next season will unfold.

The Ravens won four of their last five games in 1999 and used that momentum to win the Super Bowl the next season.

On the other side, the Ravens lost four of their last six games in 2004 and failed to break out of that rut this season.

"We as a team must go out on a winning note," receiver Derrick Mason said. "We started off rough, but we could say we finished positive. And that's something we can be optimistic about heading into the offseason."

The Ravens have won three of their past five games, including a 48-3 rout of the Green Bay Packers on Monday night. But their success has to be tempered by the fact that the combined record of all five teams they have beaten is 22-48 (.314 winning percentage).

Coach Brian Billick recognizes there will be a different atmosphere in going against the Vikings, who have overcome a slow start and alleged sex scandal on a boat involving several players to remain in the playoff picture. They have to win their last two games to sneak into the postseason.

"For us, this is a game with playoff implications," Billick said. "We've got to go in with that attitude because I'm damn sure they are. I know that team will play with intensity and passion. We'd better match that intensity or we'll be on flip side of what we saw Monday night."

Besides the playoff implications, tonight marks another game in the continuing evaluation of quarterback Kyle Boller.

He recorded the best quarterback rating (136.8) in Ravens history on Monday night, just eight days removed from committing three critical turnovers in perhaps the worst game of his career.

How he follows up on his success will reveal whether his stellar performance was a turning point or an aberration.

"In order to be a very good quarterback, it has to be on a consistent basis," Mason said. "Kyle feels the same way, and he wants it to happen. It can't be a one-game thing."

Boller said consistency in a quarterback's play is the result of a consistency in emotions.

"I've gone through a lot and have been forced to grow up," Boller said. "I've been injured, I've dealt with criticism and had a little bit of success. I've just got to keep working."

The key to Boller's success last time was his pass protection. In fact, he has thrown five touchdowns and just two interceptions in the four career games he has not been sacked.

The Vikings generate their pass rush from their front line, which has delivered 23 of the team's 29 sacks. That's the main reason why Minnesota ranks second in the NFL with 23 interceptions.

"Our job is to give him the protection so he can accomplish that feat again and not put him in situations where he is going to get hit," center Mike Flynn said.

Billick admitted in his online diary that the evaluation extends beyond Boller. He acknowledged that his management style and his interaction with players could stand improvement.

"Obviously, my mind has to start to look back on what it is I can do differently," Billick said. "I want to use these next two games to refocus my energies on what my priorities are and how I can best help this team. I'm not sure, in an analysis of myself over the last couple of years, that I don't owe the players a little more with the focus that I can bring to them."

Billick has not received any official guarantee from owner Steve Bisciotti that he will return for his eighth season. It has been a humbling time for a coach who won a Super Bowl in January 2001.

Said Billick: "I go home and occasionally go up to my bedroom drawer and open it up and pull the ring out to remind myself I'm not the village idiot."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Vikings@Ravens Tonight, 8:30, ESPN, 1300 AM, 102.7 FM Line: Ravens by 3

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