Ravens make icing with cupcake dates

September 19, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

If you're going to have a winning season - in any sport, not just pro football - you have to take what your schedule gives you. That's the first commandment.

Make the most of your best chances to win. Avoid giving back the freebies.

That's all the Ravens have done so far this season, but let's not diminish the feat.

"It's huge," Ravens coach Brian Billick said yesterday. "Beating the teams that you're quote-unquote supposed to beat is the hardest challenge of all."

It's a meaningful test the Ravens haven't always passed. In 2005, they lost three games to teams that ended up below .500, and not coincidentally, finished with a 6-10 record themselves, their worst mark in seven years. The year before, they lost twice to under-.500 teams and narrowly missed the playoffs.

Yet in 2000, when they ended up holding the Super Bowl trophy, they won all nine of their regular-season games against opponents that finished below .500. It was telling that they had the maturity and resolve to assert themselves at the right times along the way.

A team's ability to consistently beat lesser opponents is often an accurate barometer of its merits.

"Bud Grant told me that years ago when I first went to work [as an assistant] in Minnesota," Billick said of the Vikings' Hall of Fame coach, who led four teams to Super Bowls and retired in 1985. "The big games take care of themselves [as far as motivating the players], and you're going to win about half of them. But it's the other games where you build up your record."

The Ravens have only experienced the latter so far in 2006. Their schedule, like those of all NFL teams, has its easy and hard stretches, and the easiest, it appears, is now, in these first weeks. The Ravens' first two opponents, Tampa Bay and Oakland, haven't won a game between them. Neither has Cleveland, the next team on the schedule.

You want a vision of futility? The Ravens' first three opponents not only have a combined 0-6 record, but they've also been outscored 149-40, with Oakland and Tampa Bay bearing the brunt of it at a combined 96-9.

Yes, the Ravens are in especially good shape at 2-0 with a trip to Cleveland looming, but the threat level of their early schedule registers somewhere between T-ball and cupcake city (the latter used with apologies to Dick Vitale). New England in December, it isn't.

It's obvious they'll have to produce more offensively when they face tougher teams; Billick acknowledged as much yesterday, not that it was a state secret after receiver Derrick Mason gave the passing game an "F" and the offense settled for field goals instead of touchdowns on four occasions Sunday.

At the same time, in going 2-0 for the first time since their Super Bowl season, the Ravens have done exactly what a winning team is supposed to do: dominate struggling teams.

Tampa Bay, a division winner in 2005, has encountered major (and all-too-familiar) offensive problems, and Oakland just might be the NFL's worst team. The Ravens started quickly against both and won with authority, Sunday's struggles notwithstanding. The combined score of the first halves was 33-3.

It will be interesting to see whether they can keep it up in Cleveland, where they haven't won since 2003. The game looks like a win but could easily turn into a "trap" game if the Ravens aren't careful. You know the Browns will be ready, their fans fired up.

This much is certain: If the Ravens stop taking what their schedule gives them, they'll be sorry. In the demanding AFC North, they'll be contending for the postseason with Pittsburgh, the defending Super Bowl champion, and Cincinnati, a rising power. The Ravens are going to need every win they can get, and the cupcake stretch of their schedule is about to end.

After Cleveland this Sunday, they come home to play unbeaten San Diego, then go to Denver for a Monday night game. Those are much tougher assignments than Tampa Bay and Oakland, even though San Diego has a vulnerable first-year starter at quarterback (Philip Rivers) and Denver looks positively awful.

Games against Carolina (rated a Super Bowl contender in preseason), unbeaten Atlanta and improved New Orleans will follow soon after, along with a trip to Kansas City and, of course, the home-and-homes with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

It's not an impossible journey, but it doesn't provide many potential free passes other than a trip to woeful Tennessee on Nov. 12 and Cleveland's visit to Baltimore on Dec. 17.

The Ravens need to pile up the wins now, when their schedule is soft and full of opportunity. They've started well that way, but they can't blink and let up, not even once. Good teams don't.


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