Out of competition's sight, Ravens must battle mind

November 14, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Yogi Berra once said 90 percent of his game was half mental, and though they use a different ball, the Ravens can surely relate now that they're so far ahead in the AFC North.

Berra, in his tortured way, meant a player's psychological condition was critical, and indeed, the games played inside the Ravens' heads will be more important than any games played on the field in the final weeks of the NFL regular season.

The last thing they expected to encounter in 2006 was a too-easy trip to the playoffs, but against all odds, they have a 7-2 record and a three-game lead with seven to play. The other three teams in the division are a combined seven games under .500 and in varying states of distress.

Of the league's 32 teams, the Ravens, Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts look to be the surest playoff qualifiers. The undefeated Colts have a four-game lead in the AFC South, as do the 8-1 Bears in the NFC North. The Ravens have the next-biggest bulge because they have exceeded expectations while the rest of their division has stumbled.

As a result, they can make the playoffs by going 4-3 or maybe even 3-4 in their remaining games. They certainly don't need to sweep their home-and-home series with the Pittsburgh Steelers; one win will do. Nor is it imperative that they beat the Bengals in Cincinnati later this month.

They just need to win at home against the 3-6 Cleveland Browns and 3-6 Buffalo Bills, take one from the 3-6 Steelers or someone else, and just to be safe, beat the struggling Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Basically, if they avoid going 0-3 against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and also manage to beat a few bad teams, they're in.

All of which raises questions no one expected to hear: How are the Ravens going to keep their edge when they have such a king-size margin of error? How are they going to stay motivated when less is at stake on a weekly basis?

They'll never admit it, but organizationally, after two straight disappointing seasons, their primary goal for 2006 was just to make it back to the playoffs and re-establish their credibility. Well, we're not even to Thanksgiving and they've all but done that.

In that sense, they're like the brat who gets to open his Christmas presents weeks before the big day. It could be hard to maintain the same level of enthusiasm when you already have all your toys.

Oh, sure, this is pro sports, where players profess to give their all regardless of the circumstances (cough, cough). And certainly, the Ravens have all sorts of legitimate motivations for wanting to continue to play well. They can improve their playoff seeding. They can earn the right to host games in January. They can strive to improve their struggling running game and eliminate the big plays they're yielding on defense - problems they'll need to shore up against top opponents.

But it's hard to get too lathered up about any of that when all you wanted in the first place was a ticket - any ticket - to the playoff party.

In the early going Sunday in Tennessee, the Ravens looked like a team suffering from a case of self-satisfaction. Is there any better explanation for why they were shredded by one of the league's worst teams and ended up needing to make up a 19-point deficit?

To their credit, they woke up, made a bushel of plays and came all the way back. Veteran teams do that. But frankly, they didn't seem ready to play when the game started. Linebacker Bart Scott said as much in the locker room after the 27-26 victory, saying, "We didn't match their emotion at the beginning."

It's a pleasant predicament, one any team would love to have, but it's a predicament, nonetheless. How do you stave off self-satisfaction when you've all but locked up your franchise's second division title with almost half the season to go?

As Berra more or less said, it comes down to mind games. Tricks. For the Ravens, that means pretending that that gargantuan divisional lead doesn't exist. Inventing the sense of urgency that normally accompanies a playoff drive.

Ravens coach Brian Billick insists he isn't worried.

"This team is very good at focusing on the next game," he said yesterday. "They'll be very focused on Atlanta."

He added that players are always dealing with distractions ranging from personal issues to contract situations, and that winning tends to help them focus.

"A 7-2 team feels better about itself than a 2-7 team," he said.

But a 7-2 team with an improbable three-game lead needs to avoid getting fat and happy, find a way to stay motivated and focus on that half of the 90 percent of the game that is otherwise mostly mental. Or something like that.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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