Cheer now, but save some for Feb., too

2006 Afc North Champions

December 19, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The NFL is like a volatile financial market, with many teams' fortunes rising and falling sharply every year. The Ravens' stock, after two down years, is up this season - way up.

They secured their first playoff berth since 2003 by beating the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. They clinched the AFC North title last night when the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Cincinnati Bengals. Now, they're angling for a first-round bye and home playoff games that might help them go deep into January's playoffs, if not all the way to February's Super Bowl.

Their success is a holiday gift to the city; the excitement and anticipation they've generated is palpable, fast becoming a buzz. Hopefully, fans know to treasure it; the NFL all but legislates parity, and success can be fleeting.

The Ravens went 6-10 in 2005, and until recently, it seemed an overstatement or at least premature to suggest they could go all the way just a year later. But that is no longer a stretch of anyone's imagination. With two games left in the regular season, they're 11-3 and in better shape than most contenders.

They have allowed the fewest points of any team; their defense is stout even on its bad days and often downright impregnable. That gives the Ravens a chance in every game.

Offensively, after years of trying different combinations of players and coaches in an effort to jump-start the attack, the unit is producing fairly consistently with Steve McNair at quarterback and coach Brian Billick calling the plays.

Most of the other teams in the playoff mix have more obvious shortcomings; the Ravens rate well by comparison. The Colts have the league's worst run defense. The New England Patriots are up and down. The Bengals have a low-rated defense and lead the league in off-field problems.

In the NFC, the top-seeded Chicago Bears are shaky at quarterback with Rex Grossman and becoming less dominant as the season progresses. The Dallas Cowboys' defense seems to be collapsing. The New Orleans Saints lost at home Sunday to the lamentable Washington Redskins.

The San Diego Chargers look like the best team in the league; they're certainly the only contender with as few holes as the Ravens. But the Ravens beat them earlier this season. So why shouldn't the Ravens dream big?

That's not to say they're assured of making a deep run into the postseason. In January, all it takes is one clunker of a performance to end a season, and the Ravens have thrown in a couple, including an unsightly dud in Cincinnati just 19 days ago. They have that in them, too.

To avoid such an outcome, the Ravens, first of all, need to be at least a little lucky. They were fortunate Sunday when McNair apparently suffered just a minor injury when his throwing hand was stepped on. Imagine if bones had been broken and McNair were lost for the season. So much for the Super Bowl.

Injuries are part of football, but keeping your best players on the field is critical to a team's playoff success. It hurt when return specialist B.J. Sams was lost for the season with a broken leg. Now there are injuries to McNair, tight end Todd Heap and cornerback Samari Rolle, among others. It's imperative that most of the breaks (no pun intended) go the Ravens' way.

But, of course, the cornerstone of any successful playoff drive is to have a team playing well, peaking at the right time, building in a crescendo instead of dwindling away. When that happens, issues that seem critical, like earning first-round byes, become irrelevant.

Remember, the Ravens won road playoff games on their way to their January 2001 Super Bowl triumph, as did the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. All that mattered, in the end, was that they were playing better than anyone else. Their house was more in order.

Can we say that about this season's Ravens? Maybe not now, given that they played, say, a B-minus game against Cleveland on Sunday. They peaked on Nov. 26 in a 27-0 rout of the Steelers. But they have managed to keep winning for the most part. Overall, they do have more going for them than most teams.

Their remaining games won't be easy. The Steelers will be desperate to play better in Sunday's rematch; this is their Super Bowl. And the 7-7 Buffalo Bills, who play in Baltimore on Dec. 31, haven't been an easy out in weeks.

The Ravens probably need to sweep to have a shot at a first-round bye, and they'll need to be at their best, or close, to get that done. But this is when good teams start playing their best, as the playoffs approach. It's time.

With 11 wins, the Ravens are in an enviable position. Now comes the hard part - finishing what they've started. They're up to it, but only their best will make it happen.

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