As 6-2 record manifests, Ravens control destiny

Ravens Gameday

Ravens 26 Bengals 20

November 06, 2006|By RICK MAESE

You'll recall that Howard Dean was looking pretty good halfway through the primary election a couple of years ago.

And the Titanic was sailing perfectly on course when it hit its midpoint somewhere in the Atlantic.

And the South still stood a fighting chance midway through the Civil War.

Of course, none of them was in the AFC North, which is now led quite comfortably by the Ravens, a team that has hit the season's midpoint and is suddenly in the enviable position to do just about whatever it wants to do from here on out.

Yesterday's 26-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals means that just eight games into the year, the Ravens have already matched their win total from last season. In fact, 6-2 is the best record the Ravens have ever posted at the season's midway point.

But more importantly, yesterday's win means the Ravens start the second half of the season with a two-game lead over the rest of the division.

"We're in the driver's seat right now," wide receiver Derrick Mason said.

This cozy spot behind the wheel can be attributed to a couple of factors colliding. At a time when the Ravens are improving, the rest of the division seems to be imploding. The three other AFC North teams lost yesterday, and none is showing signs of a quick turnaround.

Of course, you aren't going to get the Ravens to admit to any sort of comfort zone. For them, the road to the postseason doesn't contain any symbolic mile markers.

"You don't get a prize for leading at the halfway point," linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "The prize is given out at the end, not at halfway."

If you could point your DeLorean back to August and tell Ravens players and coaches they'd be 6-2 in early November, they'd jump on the offer like it was the last doughnut on the training table. But these are the play-it-forward sorts, so everything is geared toward the next eight games, not the past eight.

The combined record of the Ravens' remaining opponents is 25-39. Not too bad. Though four of those remaining foes are divisional rivals, the stage is set about as perfectly as the Ravens could hope.

There was one thing that Ray Lewis said after yesterday's win that seemed especially telling. "I try to tell the guys every day," he said, "that we are our own worst enemy."

The translation is that through eight games, the Ravens are already in position to decide the outcome to their season. They can win the AFC North title, but none of the other three teams has that option. If the Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers or Cleveland Browns happen to finish the season in first, it'll be because the Ravens lost the crown, not because the others won it.

We could pick apart yesterday's game and find the problems - that conversation starts with the offense's red-zone efficiency - but what's becoming more apparent each week is that Brian Billick has the right tools at his disposal. (The offense controlled the clock, the defense nearly shut the Bengals out on third down, kicker Matt Stover was 4-for-4 on field goal attempts, the offensive line didn't allow a sack for the first time this season and the Ravens didn't cough up a single turnover all day.)

The offense right now looks like the guy that the lifeguard just dragged onto the beach and resuscitated. The past couple of weeks, it has cleared the water from its lungs, and there's no reason it shouldn't build on this progress.

"I don't think we've played our best game yet," running back Jamal Lewis said. "I think there's a lot to come."

That progress is dependent on Billick's continuing to find out how to get the best out of his offense and on the players' collective ability to not get ahead of themselves. The Ravens seem to understand the concept - at least in theory. They can thank the Bengals for running a fluorescent highlighter over the differences in teams heading in opposite directions.

In one locker room yesterday, we heard a team that thinks it's better than it probably is.

"We are better than Baltimore," T.J. Houshmandzadeh proclaimed. "I know they beat us today, but they just scored more points than we did. We know we're better than Baltimore, and they know it. We've got better players than they do."

Said Chad Johnson, who leads the league in talking about Chad Johnson: "We are better than Atlanta, we are better than Baltimore and we are better than the other two teams we lost to."

Over in the Ravens' locker room, the tone was different; the mood more in line with a team that respects the difficulty of the path ahead.

"What we got to do is continue to stay hungry and continue to be aggressive, not let Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland gain any ground," Mason said. "From here on out, we got to take every game as if it's a playoff game. Those guys are capable of stringing off five, six, seven in a row."

It's just the midpoint, and the Ravens are comfortably on top. If, like Mason says, they really are able to treat each of the next eight weeks as though it's a playoff game, pretty soon, they actually will be.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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