Too early to uncork uncanny similarities

Ravens 28 Raider 6

Ravens Gameday

September 18, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Only once before in franchise history have the Ravens managed to keep their opponents out of the end zone in back-to-back games. It happened in 2000.

Only once before have the Ravens nabbed at least three interceptions in back-to-back regular-season games. It happened in 2000.

And only once before have the Ravens opened a season with back-to-back wins. It happened in 2000.

You see where this is going, right?

I know we really shouldn't ...

"Too early," Jonathan Ogden said.

... I know it's probably bad form ...

"Too early," Adalius Thomas said.

... but it's unavoidable. We have to go there - that little place that Ravens players want to pretend doesn't exist and everyone else is going to have a hard time ignoring.

For the record, it is indeed way too early to draw comparisons between this year's 2-0 Ravens team and the one that ultimately hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy six seasons ago. But you just can't help entertaining a few wild thoughts. The bar was set by that group, and, reasonable or not, every other half-decent Ravens team is going to have a hard time escaping the association.

It's something you're not supposed to say out loud, of course.

Players don't want to seem overconfident. Fans don't want to jinx anything. And the coaches don't want to get ahead of themselves.

But how in the world do you avoid it completely?

The last time the Ravens won the first two games of the season, their quarterback told reporters: "I think there's a level of shock and a level of excitement. It's like we won the Super Bowl."

You won't get anything like that out of this year's group. "I think we have a lot of improvement to make," Steve McNair said after yesterday's 28-6 win over the hapless Oakland Raiders.

He's right, of course. Despite some similarities on paper, the Ravens only looked like a playoff team yesterday on one side of the ball. The red zone was like a burial ground for good drives, the offensive line resembled a hockey player's smile and McNair showed more life coming out of the tunnel in the pre-game introductions than he did in the pocket.

It's a one-game-at-a-time type of league and even though fans and surely some analysts are going to start connecting dots between 2000 and 2006, the players refuse to go there, even for a quick visit.

"You can't right now," said Thomas, whose performance yesterday should lock up the Ravens' second straight AFC Defensive Player of the Week honor. "In 2000, we won the Super Bowl. This year we've won two games. Once we've won the Super Bowl, then let's start comparing."

But it's just too tempting. Even if it's too early. Even if six years have passed. Even if only eight players on this year's team played on that Super Bowl squad, and the coordinators and coaching staff have also largely changed.

"We're totally different ballclubs," linebacker Ray Lewis said.

"We're built differently, and we're different than 2000. All we're trying to do is play hard-nosed defense and whatever comes up at the end of the road, that's what we'll take."

Sure, the parts might be different, but the blueprint sure looks similar.

We're talking about an offense that might be only steady when it's at its best. Predictable play- calling, ball-control running game and with more passes aimed at the tailbacks and tight ends than the wide receivers.

And we have another team that's defense-first. In fact, even though the first two wins came against inept offenses, here's betting that by the season's midway point, this year's unit will prove to be even more dominant than the groups from recent seasons.

(For the record, putting this year's defense in the same class as ones from recent years: "Too early," Thomas said.)

Yesterday's defensive performance was nothing short of ridiculous: three interceptions, three fumble recoveries, six sacks and a safety. The Raiders managed only 162 yards of offense - just 20 more than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers totaled one week earlier.

There were several playmakers, but none better than Thomas, who had seven tackles, two sacks and an interception. His safety in the third quarter was the Ravens' first since - yeah, you guessed it - the 2000 season.

That year, the Ravens were expected by most to be a middle-of-the-road team. They opened some eyes when they started the season with a shutout on the road against a playoff-caliber team.

Then in Week 2, they won a big one at home. (Stop the comparisons immediately! That group took its fancy 2-0 record on the road and lost for the first time in Week 3.)

There was no bar set for the 2000 team, nothing to be hush-hush about. This time around, the past resurfaces as expectations, and the Ravens are having none of that. To a man, they say their immediate focus is on going 3-0, not 16-0.

"That's what life in the NFL is all about: `What have you done for me lately?'" coach Brian Billick said.

After just two weeks, there's plenty of September excitement.

But no one wants to look too far into the future, and no one wants to mention the past. It's still too early.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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