Well-rounded Ravens shaping up to be best team in NFL

ON THE RAVENS

December 27, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

The Super Bowl champion will not be crowned for another six weeks, but the Ravens currently are the most balanced and best team in the NFL.

The opinion is not the result of euphoria surrounding Sunday's convincing win against Pittsburgh, or just jumping on the bandwagon of a team that has won eight of its past nine games. The Ravens aren't overwhelming, just complete.

Like all teams, the Ravens have weaknesses. But they have only one glaring one now, compared to several in the preseason. They've made corrections by getting more production out of the offense and solid contributions from young players. When you combine those ingredients with a veteran team whose sole mission is to win a championship, you come up with a good team, or the 2006 Ravens.

They're not the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s or the Miami Dolphins of the 1970s, but the Ravens can beat you in many ways on defense, offense or special teams. This team has gotten better throughout the regular season while some other playoff-caliber teams have not.

The Indianapolis Colts have a sorry run defense. The quarterback situation remains a trouble area with the Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears and New York Giants. The Ravens already have beaten the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers, and they simply have more talent than the New England Patriots and New York Jets.

The Ravens' weaknesses?

They've become more stable on the offensive line and in the secondary, but they still have a glaring weakness, and that's running the ball. Conventional wisdom suggests that teams that can't run can't win championships, but this season has been far from conventional. Running back Jamal Lewis isn't the threat he used to be, but he is still effective and complements the passing game.

That's a huge factor for the Ravens, because a lot of their passing game is based off play-action. If they want to go far into the playoffs, they're going to need a little more juice out of the passing game. And that looks like it is about to happen.

Enter rookie receiver Demetrius Williams.

Before Williams' emergence in the past two games, the Ravens had the typical dink-and-dunk West Coast offense. With Williams, they can go vertical, which will open up the field and present a new dilemma for most defenses.

When the Ravens go with three receivers and tight end Todd Heap, whom do you cover with your No. 3 cornerback or safety? Heap or the speedy Williams? The Ravens also have used Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton in the slot to take advantage of mismatches.

The Ravens' aren't going to go pass-happy, but at least they have options instead of being so one-dimensional as in previous seasons. This isn't a team that needs to score a lot of points.

At the beginning of this season, they couldn't muster a pass rush unless they blitzed linebackers. Now, tackle Trevor Pryce and end-linebacker Terrell Suggs dominate. At the same time, the Ravens have gotten solid contributions from rookie nose tackle Haloti Ngata and rookie safety Dawan Landry.

Usually at this time of the season, rookies hit the proverbial wall as far as fatigue, but Landry and Ngata have shown no such signs. In fact, they have gotten better.

It's all part of the work ethic of this team. You can see and read the confidence. It's building. Cornerback Samari Rolle was slouched over earlier in the season when he was going through a slump. Safety Ed Reed was quiet because he wasn't making plays. Now, Rolle has that hitch back in his step and Reed won't shut up.

Reed has made big defensive plays the past two games. The Ravens are good at taking the ball away and just as good at holding onto it. For the first time in eight years, there is some balance.

It's a complete team down to the kicking game, where the Ravens have one of the league's most reliable kickers in Matt Stover and a major defensive weapon in rookie punter Sam Koch.

Everything just seems in place. It's not the perfect team, but a well-rounded one. The Ravens have separated themselves recently from the pretenders in the league, beating up on Trent Green and Ben Roethlisberger, making good quarterbacks look absolutely terrible. Pro Bowl running backs like Larry Johnson and Willie Parker can't find holes in the Ravens' defense.

It's kind of scary.

And then there is the Steve McNair factor. Regardless of how poorly he plays, the Ravens have a shot if they have the ball and are within a touchdown in the last two minutes of the game. And that's why the Ravens get the edge over any other team.

San Diego is as balanced as the Ravens, and seems to be on course for the AFC championship game against the Ravens.

San Diego has a good defense, but the Chargers have given up some points. Their front seven will give the Ravens problems, and that will neutralize the Ravens' passing game. The Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson is a great running back, but he won't have a big game against the Ravens because they can match his speed.

It will come down to the quarterbacks. It's McNair vs. Philip Rivers. It's the calm, cool, veteran who has played in numerous big games against the third-year kid who has yet to start in an NFL postseason game.

Whom would you take? It's McNair and the Ravens.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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