How Ravens finish is what truly matters

October 17, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The team that won the Super Bowl last season had a 4-2 record after six games, just as the Ravens do now.

The team that won the Super Bowl last season was 7-5 and about to miss the playoffs, but then it gathered itself and won eight straight regular-season and postseason games.

That team was, of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose title run underlined a basic sports tenet that is especially true in pro football: It's not how you start but how you finish that counts.

The Ravens certainly proved that in 2000, when they lost three games in a row to fall to 5-4 and seemed out of the playoff picture but then won seven straight regular-season games and four in the playoffs to capture the Super Bowl title.

They weren't good enough to pull off such a run earlier that season, but they improved through November, December and January, and by the end, no one could touch them.

This season's Ravens are going to need to pull off a similar trick. All things considered, their 4-2 record constitutes a pretty good start. Although they have beaten only one winning team (San Diego) and really only played one top-notch all-around game (against Tampa Bay in the opener), they're in first place in the AFC North and have put themselves in position to accomplish positive things.

But they're one of those teams that could go either way from here, up to acclaim or down to oblivion.

Sunday's letdown notwithstanding, they have a playoff-caliber defense that is going to keep them in most games. And though their offense is a constant headache and one of the league's worst statistically, it has a handful of proven playmakers and the potential to improve, much as the Ravens' 2000 offense did.

But while there's a chance the Ravens will get better, there's also a chance they'll get worse, as they did in 2004, when the rewards of a 7-3 start melted away with four losses in the last six games, leaving the team out of the playoffs.

Dealing with in-season changes is one of pro football's most underrated aspects. Many change agents confront every team every year -- injuries, gains and losses of faith in certain players, shifts in locker room politics. Young players can gain experience and improve as a season progresses. Old players can get tired and decline.

Though it is often apparent early whether a team is generally good or bad (see 0-5 Oakland and 5-0 Indianapolis), the team that ends a season is often quite different from the one that started it.

The Ravens are hard to gauge on that scale after six games. Strangely, there has been little difference between their winning and losing performances. A couple of plays have usually spelled the difference, and as happens, some have gone their way and some haven't.

They could easily have beaten Carolina Sunday if their defense had played its normal game, They could easily have lost to Cleveland in Week 3. They probably should have lost to San Diego in Week 4.

But, well, whatever. They're in first place. Things could be worse. They could be 2-4, as they were last season. They could be the last-place Redskins, looking desperate after losing at home to previously winless Tennessee Sunday.

At the very least, a winning start excuses you from that conversation.

But it's what happens from here on that counts.

What separates teams that get better as a season progresses from teams that get worse? Ravens coach Brian Billick said yesterday that it's the ability to keep an even keel and not get overwhelmed by week-to-week circumstances.

"This [2006] team has been pretty good at that," Billick said.

Their schedule could help. Only four of their remaining 10 games are against teams that currently have winning records. Every December opponent is currently under .500.

Of course, slow-starting Pittsburgh is currently a losing team, and that's likely to change.

The improvements the Ravens need to make are obvious. The offense needs to develop a semblance of consistency and stop making turnovers. (Six in the past two games.) Quarterback Steve McNair needs to play more like the Pro Bowl player he was in 2005. Mike Anderson deserves a larger share of the carries.

The offense needs to get better "across the board," Billick said. The defense has allowed too many long completions.

Overall, "a ton" of things need to be addressed, Billick said, admitting two straight losses had made this "a frustrating time."

But the Steelers were saying many of the same things a year ago, as were the Ravens at this time in 2000. The 2006 Ravens could take a similar, high road to the playoffs, or just as easily, a low road to nowhere.

Forget the first six games. All that matters is what they do, or don't do, from now on.

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