State Of Excitement

With the Ravens, Mids and Terps likely headed to the postseason, Maryland is a ...

November 07, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

A year ago today, Ralph Friedgen's Maryland Terrapins had a .500 record and were on their way to a second straight losing season. This year, they're 7-2 and assured of their first bowl appearance since 2003.

A year ago, the Ravens were 2-6 at the midway point of the NFL season. This year, they're 6-2 and own a commanding lead in the AFC North.

Coming off a weekend of successes in critical games, the 2006 local football season is officially looking up. The gloom of the past few seasons seems to be giving way to sunshine.

Barring a Ravens' collapse, this season could produce an AFC playoff berth along with the two bowl bids locally, with Navy already headed to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. That has happened only once (in 2003) since the Ravens came to Baltimore.

Does that mean things are perfect? Hardly. The Ravens never seem to do anything easily, and they're a notch below the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC's pecking order. The Terps and Midshipmen were throttled by their toughest opponents.

But given the shape of things around here a year ago, no one should complain. Life, it turns out, is pretty good in 2006.

Any sports fan knows that there are years when the breaks just go your way, and this seems to be one. Oh, sure, the Ravens are better than they were, and the Terps have shown admirable heart in engineering several comebacks. But let's face it, good fortune is raining down on both teams.

Look at the Ravens' divisional competition. The Pittsburgh Steelers are having a miserable year, replete with motorcycle accidents and key turnovers. They're 2-6 as the defending Super Bowl champions after losing at home to Denver on Sunday, and receiver Hines Ward said it's time to start auditioning for next year. The Cincinnati Bengals, whom the Ravens beat Sunday, have also gone in the wrong direction after winning the division in 2005. They're bickering among themselves and can't protect quarterback Carson Palmer.

If you think the Ravens aren't encouraged and emboldened by their rivals' problems, you're wrong.

Any doubts about the Ravens having good karma were erased when quarterback Steve McNair floated a dangerous, ill-advised pass into the flat late in the fourth quarter Sunday. The Ravens still had a six-point lead, down from 17, but Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph grabbed the ball with no one in front of him.

If the Ravens' luck were bad, Joseph would have tucked the interception away and run for a touchdown to give the Bengals a comeback victory. Instead, Ravens receiver Derrick Mason grabbed Joseph's arms, the pass fell incomplete and the Ravens held on.

Maybe McNair is just lucky, as opposed to Kyle Boller, who never got a break.

In any case, the Terps are experiencing a similar windfall of positive karma. The Atlantic Coast Conference is utterly upside down this season, with Wake Forest, of all teams, having risen to the top. Maryland's games against Florida State and Miami looked like sure-fire losses before the season, but those teams are struggling. The Terps have already beaten the Seminoles and are favored against the Hurricanes on Saturday. What were the odds of any of that happening just a few months ago?

Don't misunderstand, the Terps have also made their own luck. They dug deep and turned their season around with a winning rally from 20 points behind at Virginia on Oct. 14. That was impressive. So was Saturday's game-winning drive at Clemson.

The fourth quarter of that game illustrated that not every break is going Maryland's way. A replay reversal that took a safety and two Terps points off the board was one of the worst calls you will ever see. Maryland had every right to scream. It was enough to make you think the replay official were a Clemson alum.

Clemson took advantage, driving to a field goal that gave it a 12-10 lead with 2:25 left. But quarterback Sam Hollenbach had a Peyton Manning moment and moved the Terps into field-goal range with a series of clutch completions and runs. Dan Ennis kicked the game-winner as time expired.

The Terps are now looking at options ranging from the Champs Sports Bowl to one of the BCS biggies if they win out, which won't be easy. But they're playing with house money and should be relaxed, having already achieved their goal of getting back to a bowl. It will be interesting to see what happens.

That's why no one should complain if the Ravens, Terps and Mids aren't quite perfect - they're winning, which beats the alternative, and at the very least, makes them interesting.

They could 2-6, headed for a losing season, down and out again. But they're not.

Enjoy.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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