As NFL barometer, Week 1 tends to be partly cloudy


September 12, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

There is every reason for Ravenstown to be encouraged after one game.

The only reason not to be encouraged is, well, it's one game.

The Ravens' throttling of the Buccaneers on Sunday in Tampa, Fla., was replete with vivid messages deliverable to the rest of the NFL. Steve McNair looks more than capable of leading a winning team. Ray Lewis has officially re-engaged. Chris McAlister is awake this year.

Considering what fans in Baltimore have endured over the past two seasons - losing football, offensive ineptitude, occasionally indecipherable adjectives (not to mention their eighth and ninth straight losing seasons in that other sport) - you'd have to be the grimmest of killjoys to suggest people shouldn't be dancing in the streets after a 27-0 win.

The moment should be enjoyed - by the fans and, according to Ravens coach Brian Billick, also by the players.

"I don't want to temper that [enjoyment] at all," Billick said yesterday, "as long as their focus is there come Wednesday morning."

That's when the players will begin preparing for Sunday's home opener against the Oakland Raiders, to be followed by a game in Cleveland and then another home game against the San Diego Chargers - a relatively benign schedule that gives the Ravens a real shot at going 4-0 for the first time.

Encouraging, indeed.

The only caveat is that Week 1 of the NFL season tends to be among the most hilariously overanalyzed pieces of scheduling on any sports landscape.

It's the place where eight months of nonstop scrutiny and intense preparation builds a pressure cooker that's bound to blow violently and, depending on how the day goes, produce either sheer giddiness or abject despair.

The extremes are dramatic: win and you start thinking about printing playoff tickets; lose and you start penciling the rebuilding plan on a napkin.

Fans in Baltimore, Jacksonville and Philadelphia (to name a few of Sunday's winners) are riding especially high today, while their counterparts in Tampa, Denver and Houston (yes, Sunday losers) are privately starting to count the days until pitchers and catchers report.

Without the ebb and flow of the long season, which enables teams to find their appropriate level, Week 1 games take on an inflated importance. They're all we have to go on - until Week 2.

Of course, some of today's joy/panic will prove to be misguided, irrational, a wild overreaction. The first week of the NFL season is notorious for sending out errant signals.

A year ago, the Seattle Seahawks lost their opener in convincing fashion, absorbing a 26-14 beating in Jacksonville. Where did they end up after such a discouraging start? Playing in the Super Bowl.

Three of the other 11 teams that qualified for the 2005 playoffs also lost their regular-season openers.

Sure, Week 1 results can also be right on target (the Ravens have started four of their five losing seasons with losses), but their ability to deceive is the stuff of legend. The Ravens have had five seasons of .500 or better in their history, and only twice in those five seasons did they win their opener.

Asked yesterday how much of a barometer Week 1 generally is for what lies ahead, Billick shrugged and said, "If you win, you hope a lot; if you lose, you hope not at all."

In other words: We'll see.

It's obviously better to win, especially when so much goes right, as it did for the Ravens in Tampa. But it's still early - really early. The Ravens seem to know that all too well.

"I'm not a golfer, but when you birdie that first hole, you pretty much have 17 more to go," Billick said. "We're just going on to the next hole."

That's the calm approach, which a team can afford to take after winning its opener so impressively. The opposite is the hysterical fallout that was evident in many losing camps yesterday.

In Kansas City, where quarterback Trent Green was knocked out like a boxer Sunday, they're wondering what to do next.

In Dallas, where the Cowboys lost to Jacksonville, one columnist is already asking about the quarterback controversy between Drew Bledsoe (43,693 career passing yards) and Tony Romo (43,693 fewer career passing yards).

In Tampa, in the wake of such an all-encompassing failure, they're wondering if the Buccaneers are really that bad. Billick doesn't think so.

"At the end of the day, Tampa Bay is a very good football team," he said. "I'll be surprised if they're not in the [playoff] hunt."

If so, Week 1 was just an aberration - but not both ways, the Ravens hope.

"It doesn't matter if you win [the opener] if you don't come back and play well the next week," Billick said. "If you end up 1-1, what's the difference?

"We've earned the right to feel good about one victory."

And then forget about it as soon as possible.

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