Testing, testing: Is this team on?

Ravens Gameday

Ravens 30 Vikings 23

December 26, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

Last night's game against the Vikings constituted the Ravens' last chance to prove themselves against a winning team this season. They finish up their schedule Sunday at Cleveland against the faltering Browns, who were only 41 points shy of the Steelers Saturday. Such games tend to provide, um, rather meaningless lessons.

Since their season disintegrated, the Ravens have been outspoken about using games to try to find out as much as possible about every aspect of their team, from quarterback Kyle Boller to the Ray Lewis-less defense. They don't have anything else to do, and because they're facing a lot of critical decisions in the coming months, they need to be as informed as possible.

Obviously, games against winning teams such as the Vikings tend to shed considerably more light than games against losing teams such as the Browns. A game against a winner allows you to see how you stack up against competition that is where you want to be - in the race for the playoffs.

The Ravens' 1-7 record against winners heading into last night tells you all you need to know about their standing in relation to the NFL's upper tier. Don't believe the hype. They have some serious catching up to do.

Yes, they had won three of their past five games and five of seven overall at home in 2005 heading into last night, but any such attempt to reset their season any more positively misses the larger point. When confronted with quality opposition this season, the Ravens have almost invariably blinked.

Beat the Texans at home? Nice going, but everyone does. (Usually by more than one point, the Ravens' margin of victory.)

Pound the Packers on Monday Night Football? It was fun to watch, but let's face it, the pitiful Packers were there only in body.

The Ravens need to start beating some quality teams before anyone can start suggesting that maybe they had hit bottom (at 34-0 in Cincinnati?) and were starting to rise again.

Of course, using the scandal-scarred, up-and-down Vikings at an example of NFL quality is a dubious proposition, to say the least. They ranked right with the Ravens as a disappointment this season until they improbably put together six straight wins recently to climb into the playoff race. They have talent, for sure, but they're tough to predict.

Nonetheless, they brought at 8-6 record into last night's game, making them, if anything, a more insightful measuring stick for the Ravens than either the Packers or Texans.

When the Vikings took the opening kickoff and virtually sprinted down the field for a quick touchdown, it appeared the Ravens might have been lulled by a relaxed Christmas night environment that featured thousands of empty seats. But they came right back with a touchdown drive of their own, with Boller completing seven of eight passes.

The back-and-forth pace slowed down after that, but Boller continued to look much sharper than he ever had before the Packers game six days earlier, in which he devastated one of the league's better defenses with his passing. Once again last night, he was everything he hadn't been before that game - quick, decisive, in charge and, for the most part, on target.

To say his out-of-nowhere Joe Montana impression has come along too late to save this season would be an understatement. If he had played anything like this instead of stumbling so badly in several games, the Ravens surely would have upset Denver and also probably won another game or two along the way.

Now that Boller has shone so brightly in back-to-back games, including last night's against a team in the running for the playoffs, Boller is making it a lot tougher for the Ravens to make a call on his future. I wouldn't put any stock in his late-season turnaround except that he does appear to be looking off defenders, getting rid of the ball in a timely fashion and finding the open man - essentials that had previously eluded him. Something clearly is clicking.

Put it this way: If you asked an educated fan to blindly watch these past two games without knowing anything about the players or their history, the fan wouldn't say that the Ravens had a quarterback problem. To the contrary, the fan probably would say that the Ravens had an above-average, playmaking quarterback.

Their running game continues to struggle, and the defense was leakier than usual last night, so it's hard to say precisely what they Ravens learned overall. But watching Boller devastate the Vikings as the Ravens tried to beat a winning team for just the second time all season, it was increasingly apparent that, surprisingly, there might be more pressing needs for the Ravens in the coming offseason than finding another quarterback.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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