Ex-Cowboy says Ravens are stars

October 06, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Here sits Michael Irvin, his smile as bright and flashy as his jewelry. And yet somehow, it's what comes out of his mouth that begs for a spotlight.

"No doubt in my mind," he says. "That's the No. 1 team right now in the National Football League. Period. I've been telling everyone. Period."

You believe him, but Irvin insists on bringing in a witness.

"Tom, yo Tom!" he bellows out for Tom Jackson, who'll be sitting to Irvin's left on the set of ESPN's Monday Night Countdown before the Ravens-Broncos game in Denver next week. "Let me ask you something: Who's my No. 1 team right now in the NFL?"

Jackson chuckles. "The Baltimore Ravens," he says before quickly turning in hopes of escaping the onslaught of exclamation points that are loaded in Irvin's chamber.

"That's right!" says the former Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl wide receiver-turned-ESPN analyst. Irvin is visibly excited now, and you start thinking if that ice cube-sized earring shakes loose and hits the floor, you can retire early. "The Baltimore Ravens! No. 1! Period. I've been on it all week. That's it. And I'll keep telling people, too."

Funny how things have changed, isn't it? This time a week ago, the Ravens were disrespected. They were undefeated and still listed as underdogs at home. One win against the San Diego Chargers - sloppy, ugly and mostly unimpressive - was a perception-changer.

"All the experts said we were the worst 3-0 team in the NFL because the teams we beat had no wins," receiver Derrick Mason said after that Chargers game. "Now, we beat the team that was being called the best 2-0 team, so maybe we will get some respect. We aren't expecting it, but it would be nice."

Oh, you're getting it, Derrick. Despite the long list of problems with the Ravens' offense, the nation is showing a lot of love right now.

ESPN.com ranked them third in the NFL, behind the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts. In fact, most national media outlets have the same top three, Ravens always No. 3, Colts usually No. 1 and Bears slotted in between.

"Yep, Steve McNair still has some of the old punch," wrote Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z.

In addition to ESPN.com, the Ravens were moved into the three-hole in anticipation of Monday's showdown in Denver by Yahoo.com, CBS Sports- line.com, SI.com and a poll of nine Tribune newspapers (including The Sun).

"Is this 2000 all over again, with a lot of defense with just enough offense on top?" asked Pete Prisco of CBS Sportsline.com. "At some point, though, the offense has to pick it up."

I like the Ravens as an underdog. The truth is, they haven't played like one of the three best teams in the league. They might have the record that indicates they're that good, but they haven't put it together on the field.

There are a fleet of one-loss teams that belong in at least the same category as the Ravens. You almost get the feeling that analysts are giving the Ravens so much love because they have to, not because it has been earned.

With parity in the league, it doesn't matter too much. The first month of the season confirmed what many of us suspected in the preseason: The Ravens are included in a tier of teams that have all the parts of a champion. What the first few weeks of the season have really done is convince the doubters, those who weren't sure that McNair was the missing piece, who weren't sold on the idea that the offense could score when it needed to.

"I've felt sorry for that defense for half a decade," ESPN's Steve Young said earlier this week. "If the Ravens continue to play good football - they don't even need to play great football - it'll be interesting. They have a leader now, and they've shown what they can do in the fourth quarter. Really, who knows how far they can go?"

Michael Irvin seems to have an idea. They're No. 1, he keeps saying.

Though they certainly could be, I'm not as convinced. The Ravens just lost Edwin Mulitalo for the season, a big blow to the offensive line. Jamal Lewis looks like another part, not a playmaker. And there are 26 other quarterbacks with a better passer rating than McNair (though his rating in the fourth quarter is 103.8).

No. 1? Michael, for four quarters of football, you really think they look like the best team in the NFL?

Irvin lowers his voice and leans closer, like he's about to reveal something important.

"Look, the first, second and third - that's fine, that's all important," he says. "But the fourth quarter - that's what matters. And they've won them all. What's more important than that, man?"

He pauses and smiles. A picture is worth a thousand words, and Irvin's face is worth a million bucks. Watch the Ravens on Monday - pay special attention to those final 15 minutes - and we'll get a good idea whether his words are worth anything at all.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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