Anxiety about Ravens fades to black

September 24, 2006|By RICK MAESE

In the early weeks of the NFL season, we're all too hesitant and cautious to make definitive statements about the games we're watching.

It's early still. So much can change. It's a long season.

And so on.

Of course it's a lot easier to reflect after Week 16 and make judgments with proper perspective - but where's the fun in that? Besides, even after two weeks of games, there are still plenty of truths we can identify about this year's Ravens.

There's a lot of time left in the season, but already we know with near absolute sorta-kinda certainty that:

We miss Brian. OK, that might be going a bit too far (considering he's still the coach), but suffice it to say, we media types do long for the Brian Billick of old at least a little bit. Cameras and tape recorders feed off sound bytes, and talking with Billick used to be like visiting an all-you-can-eat buffet. Now we're feasting on crumbs some days.

That said, one of the smartest offseason moves might prove to be the way owner Steve Bisciotti handled Billick after last season. The complaint box wouldn't have been stuffed to the brim if Bisciotti chose to fire Billick. The way the Ravens underachieved in 2005, he would have been justified in doing so.

But the owner wisely made a decision based on what the Ravens could do in 2006 rather than what they had done the previous season. Billick has the types of game pieces at his disposal to field a competitive team each Sunday, and he seems to be spending more time moving these pieces rather than explaining their psychological, metaphysical and transcendental chemical compositions.

Schedule-makers are added to holiday-card list. Can you imagine how many other teams in the league would love to have opened the season with three bye weeks? What a great deal.

The Ravens' third bye week opponent is the Cleveland Browns this afternoon. Combined, the first three teams on the Ravens' schedule are 0-6 and averaging fewer than seven points a game.

If you check out their respective total offense figures, they don't get much worse: Tampa Bay is No. 28, Cleveland No. 29 and Oakland an NFL-worst No. 32.

If we were going by European soccer rules, these three teams would be dropped next season into a lower league (suggestions: arenafootball2 or maybe the NAIA).

Lewis I and II are back. It's a good thing for the Ravens that cooler heads prevailed during the offseason. It isn't hard to picture Ray Lewis and Jamal Lewis wearing different uniforms this season.

Both players have already shown a commitment to the Ravens and have performed well enough on the field to temporarily silence skeptics who've suggested age has gotten the better of them.

If Ray Lewis is a half-step slower, he's disguising it well. With Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas around him, and Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata (a big body sill searching for his first tackle) in front, Lewis is effective again. He might never have the singular impact that he once did, but with the talent around him, he doesn't have to.

While Ray Lewis showed in Week 1 what he's capable of, Jamal Lewis has still given us only hints. Though he hasn't gotten the carries to put up huge numbers in the first two weeks, he also seems to pull himself out of the game at times.

If there's a game where he's capable of a throwback performance, it's today's.

After a couple of great showings against the Browns in 2003, Lewis has failed to top the 100-yard mark in his past four games against Cleveland. Still, in 10 career meetings, he has totaled 1,329 yards and seven touchdowns against the Browns.

Cleveland enters today's game with the league's 28th-ranked rush defense, giving up 158 yards a game on the ground.

Defense is the best offense. There are just no holes in the starting lineup, and the Ravens probably have more defensive depth than anyone in the league.

This might be the only unit in the league with which you feel comfortable visiting the restroom or the convenience store whenever the other team has the ball.

There's a reason that their first two opponents have offenses ranked near the bottom of the league. Every other offense on the schedule should expect to drop a few spots after facing the Ravens.

Most skeptics live in the 410 area code. The dialogue surrounding the Ravens is completely different in the state of Maryland and the rest of the country.

By the time last week's Ravens game was finished, most observers and analysts were sufficiently convinced that the Week 1 win over the Buccaneers was no fluke. Those who actually watched the game were rightly concerned about the offensive ineptitude. (Seriously, these guys seem to mistake the red zone for the end zone. Memo to McNair: Keep going until the ref raises both hands.)

Many fans around Baltimore seemed to panic after the Ravens' second win, as though it foretold some October disaster. The truth is, these early wins build the character and confidence that will help this team in those October games.

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