Loss provides reminder that best is yet to come

Bengals 13 Ravens 7

Ravens Gameday

December 01, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Cincinnati — Cincinnati-- --For four days, their confidence, their expectations and their rabid fan base climbed sky-high, entering exciting and uncharted territory. In three horrific hours last night, it came crashing down to reality.

While the orange-clad and revenge-mad Bengals fans kept shouting Ohio's unofficial state question -- "Who dey? Who dey?" -- the Ravens left their locker room last night sighing to themselves, "Oy vey! Oy vey!"

Of course, the Ravens now have a question of their own to face, one that is sure to hang like a dark cloud over the nine days leading up to their next game: Will last night's deflating 13-7 loss to the Bengals prove to be a wake-up call, a turning point or a blip on the radar?

The rain fell steadily all night at Paul Brown Stadium, but it's difficult to see this team slipping too much from the loss, its third of the season. As one-sided as the game seemed, the Bengals didn't reveal any new holes or problem areas that cast increased doubt on the rest of the Ravens' regular season.

The players' confidence sure didn't seem to take much of a pounding, no matter how bad they looked.

"This train ain't stopping for nobody," linebacker Bart Scott promised. Maybe not, but it moved at some pretty slow speeds in Cincinnati.

Regardless of last night's lackluster performance, the Ravens clearly take comfort knowing that they don't appear poised for a poor December. A relatively easy schedule over the final four weeks (opponents' combined record: 19-25) doesn't hurt. But more important, the Ravens are not built like a team that will stumble as it lunges for the finish line.

"We'll respond like we always have," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "We went on a streak where we lost two in a row and came back and ran off ... five in a row. So it is what it is. It's just a matter of regrouping."

Aside from trying to seal up the division crown soon, the Ravens need to show that they've yet to play their best football. That big win over the Steelers could've caused worry among some. Traditional thinking goes, you peak when the games are most important, not while you're still eating Thanksgiving leftovers.

Peaking too early is a worry that keeps plenty of NFL coaches up late. Just ask Tom Coughlin or Lovie Smith how comfy they're feeling about their teams right now. But that shouldn't be Brian Billick's concern.

"We missed an opportunity to capture the division," Billick said. "We will have more opportunities. That's the position we put ourselves in and that's what we'll focus on when we come back and get ready for the Chiefs."

The Ravens are still climbing. Their peak is ahead of them. Teams fueled by great defenses don't disappear like other squads, even if scoreboards and standings suggest some stumbling.

When we talk about "peaking," we're usually referring to offense. Truly great defensive teams remain consistent on their side of the ball and have more staying power. The implosion usually takes place on offense.

Look no further than Indianapolis, where "peak" is a four-letter word no one dares utter. In 2004, the season Peyton Manning broke Dan Marino's single-season touchdown record, the mighty Colts offense failed to score a touchdown in a playoff game against the Patriots. And then last season, they started 13-0 and again stumbled in the playoffs, falling behind 21-3 and ultimately losing to the Steelers.

When this season is all said and done, we might again be talking about another Colts team that peaked too early. But the Ravens? Their offense hasn't played well enough -- or consistently enough -- for us to think they've even hit a rest area on the mountain. They still need binoculars to get a view of any peaks.

It's going to take the benefit of hindsight to know just when this team and its unpredictable offense plays at its best, but it hasn't happened yet. That might have been the worry after the Steelers' game, but last night was a reminder that there's a lot of work to be done.

"We're still in control of what we want to get done," tight end Todd Heap said. "[We're] definitely frustrated with what happened today, but we've still got a lot of confidence about us that we can go and get the job done next week."

Billick has seen what his team is capable of, and even though he didn't see much of it last night, a Week 13 loss on the road is no reason to think it won't be replicated in December and January.

If the win over the Steelers showed the Ravens how good they can be, last night's near-shutout showed just how bad. They need to heed this loss as some sort of reminder, not a revelation.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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