Ravens must produce December to remember

December 10, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Starting with the first day of training camp every season, the Ravens talk about December. It arrived later for them than for all but one other team this year, but it's here now. This is what the Ravens say they prepare for, and this is when they say they must, and usually do, hit their stride.

They'd better be right this year. Too much is at stake this time around for their schedule to be off.

The Ravens' belief in their credo - that everything they do during training camp and the season is directed toward being stronger and fresher than their opponents during the final month - gets a major test starting today in Kansas City. With four games to go, the Ravens can't afford to slip up if they want to get the bye they covet, and the home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs that's within reach.

As this final month approached and their post-bye, post-coordinator-switch winning streak reached five games, the Ravens talked a lot about how they were finally, after all the stumbles and hitches, getting the offense in sync, how all three phases - offense, defense and special teams - were clicking, and how their time was approaching.

The last of those five straight wins was near-perfection, a 27-0 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers at home, and the Ravens reveled in it, particularly in how they were more physical than their opponent in every matchup. They ran the ball with power unseen much of the season, erased the Steelers' running game, bludgeoned Ben Roethlisberger and dominated all over the field.

Ravens football, they said, rightfully so. That's exactly what they displayed that day, and it seemed as if they had, at long last, turned the corner.

"This is how we're supposed to be playing this time of year," linebacker Bart Scott said after the Steelers win. "We know what we're playing for. We know what we have to do to be ready each week. Mentally and physically, you're sharp, you're ready. This is when you earn your way into the playoffs."

It seemed as if it all justified the lighter touch Brian Billick had applied in practice, to keep them from wearing down, to get them at their peak when other teams were feeling the bumps and bruises more than the Ravens were.

That's always been the plan, and typically, it's praised by the public when the Ravens win late in the season and shouted down when they lose.

The praise flooded in after the Pittsburgh game. When they lost four days later in Cincinnati - yes, on a much shorter turnaround than usual, but still a loss - the doubters found their voices.

That loss, by the way, came on the day before December began. Thus, the doubts were doubled.

Now, one loss can be blown out of proportion easily, even after five wins in a row, even when the record is 9-3 and the division lead is two games. Factor in this, as well: So far, in each of the three NFL Network Thursday games so far, and in one of the Thanksgiving afternoon games, the road team (at a presumed disadvantage because of travel) has lost.

Still, the defeat by the Bengals has only increased the white-knuckle atmosphere that surely will surround every Ravens game from here on out - none more than this afternoon in one of the NFL's more inhospitable outposts.

The Ravens' season not only will be determined, but defined, by the two remaining road games, today and on Christmas Eve in Pittsburgh. Winning on the road, in the bitter cold, against other teams with something to fight for (or even with nothing to fight for), changes everybody's perception of a team.

Now, every loss, even in tough road venues, will be magnified, and the way they play will be under even more of a microscope. Looking tired after a short week in Cincinnati is one thing. Looking tired today, after all the days off, the virtual "bye week" the players were so relieved to get, is another.

Not to say that they'll look tired, or that it would be the reason if they lose to the Chiefs. But hitting a wall now would go against everything they've said they stand for all year and in previous years.

The numbers back them up. In their three playoff seasons - 2000, 2001 and 2003 - the Ravens were 8-3 in the regular season in December and January. Even last year, when they were out of it by December, they finished 3-2.

In 2004, they were 2-3. The finish cost them an almost-certain playoff berth. Two of the defeats were in Indianapolis and, in a rout, in Pittsburgh, and their last November game was just as ugly, in New England.

This is a different team, and every sign points to them finishing more like their playoff predecessors.

But that's what December is all about, separating teams that make the playoffs from ones that just talk about it.

david.steele@baltsun.com

David Steele -- Points After

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