Not yet picture perfect, but framework in place

ON THE RAVENS

November 21, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

There are six weeks left in the regular season, plenty of time for the Ravens to peak and play nearly perfect games. But can this team play the perfect game, and does it really matter?

Since winning the first four games of the season, the Ravens talked about being a work in progress. There have been modest improvements in some areas, but the Ravens seem to be just good and balanced enough to win most games. The question is if this team can become great, or if this is their playoff style as well.

During the first 10 games, the Ravens (8-2) have found ways to win, from converting field goals to blocking them in the waning seconds. They've staged comebacks, have almost blown big leads and have played only one good half in each of the past two games. They're about as inconsistent as a .500 team, but they are one game behind the Indianapolis Colts for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Go figure, huh?

But at the same time, you see a lot of potential for greatness. The Ravens finally have a passing game. They have talented receivers and a tough, veteran quarterback. The offensive line has improved, and Sunday, for the first time in a month, the team had a dominating ground game that featured running back Jamal Lewis.

On defense, the Ravens have an abundance of speed and have won the past two games without star middle linebacker Ray Lewis. The line hasn't been dominating, but ends Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs have dominated lately. The secondary is suspect, but a lot of its problems can be overcome with a strong pass rush. And in the past two weeks, the special teams have delivered big plays to win games.

The Ravens have balance. Former Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda used to say that the team that wins the Super Bowl in this era of the salary cap isn't always the best team, but the team with the fewest weaknesses. If you look at the Ravens, especially with the offense improving, they're becoming as balanced as the San Diego Chargers.

But on Sundays, it never appears that way. The Ravens are so inconsistent, even on defense. Ravens quarterback Steve McNair is either hot or cold, and it varies from half to half. He has trouble either holding on to snaps or keeping his feet. The penalties are starting to mount again, and there hasn't been much of a running game. If defensive tackle Kelly Gregg weren't so consistent, the interior of the defensive line would be unstable, and the problems in the secondary have been well documented.

So what gives? How can a team that has won so many games look so ugly at times? You can put some of the blame on the NFL. Parity is another name for being average, and that's what the league has become. The Ravens have 12 former Pro Bowl players on the team, most of them past their prime, but they are still better than 80 percent of the players at their position. Veteran left tackle Jonathan Ogden is having his best season in recent years, and has become more of a vocal leader this season. Veterans such as Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Derrick Mason and Pryce can still make plays and win games.

The Ravens also seem to forget their identity and fall into this state of grand illusions, where they think they have become one of the league's elite. Sorry, fellas, but this is a blue-collar team. The Ravens have to work their butts off to win.

The Ravens are virtually no different from most of the other good teams in the AFC. They all have weaknesses. The Colts have a great offense and the league's top quarterback in Peyton Manning, but their defense can't stop the run. The Broncos have balance as far as offense and defense, but they also have quarterback Jake Plummer, who'll eventually become the reason Denver doesn't make it to the Super Bowl again.

San Diego has the best overall talent, but third-year quarterback Philip Rivers has no playoff experience and the Chargers are coached by Marty Schottenheimer, whose picture is right next to the word "choke" in the dictionary. The New England Patriots have been hurt by the lack of a running game and attrition from losing quality assistant coaches through the years.

That leaves the Ravens with other teams such as Jacksonville and Kansas City, but unlike the Jaguars and Chiefs, they aren't fighting to survive. With a three-game lead in the AFC North, they are battling through any complacency that might set in. But the signs of improvement are there.

Jamal Lewis looked good Sunday as an often-criticized offensive line opened up huge holes. When McNair is on, the Ravens appear to be almost unbeatable. The defense, led by Ray Lewis and outside linebackers Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas, is still one of the best in the league and can carry the team on most Sunday afternoons. Matt Stover is one of the best clutch kickers in the league. The cosmic rays and luck from that 2000 team are back in the atmosphere, and this is a team also driven by unselfish veterans who want a ring more than money.

The last time the Ravens won a championship, the AFC didn't have any super teams, similar to now. The Ravens were one-dimensional, winning with an overwhelming defense. The defense is still good enough to win, and the Ravens have enough talent to scratch and fight through the playoffs. But it could be so much easier if they brought it all together during the last six weeks of the season.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral.

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