Patriots have dealt themselves into Super Bowl favorite's role with Moss

April 30, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Here the Ravens were, having a perfectly lovely NFL draft weekend, instilling a fresh dose of hope into this season and the next several, when along come the New England Patriots to screw up their entire blueprint.

Actually, the Patriots' acquisition -- or, more accurately, theft -- of Randy Moss from the Oakland Raiders yesterday morning, a couple of hours before the Ravens went on the clock for Day 2, didn't derail the Ravens' train one bit.

The expectations everyone had for them next February, though? Major derailment.

No one at the Castle would ever admit that, and the football world could easily be proved wrong -- possibly as early as Monday night, Dec. 3, when Moss and Co. visit M&T Bank Stadium. But if the Patriots are today not the favorites to be the next Super Bowl champions over the Ravens, Indianapolis Colts and everybody else, they ought to be.

Moss going to the Patriots -- baggage, Hall of Fame numbers and all -- eclipsed everything that had happened in the draft Saturday and everything that followed it yesterday. JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, all the overblown, premature hype surrounding the most out-of-control non-event in sports, were quashed by the news of Moss joining forces with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, fellow wide receiver newcomers Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker and some guy named Adalius Thomas on the three-time champs.

Even the most hard-core, purple-clad here in town now have to look at everything that's happened with their team this offseason, and everything that will happen, through the Moss-New England filter.

And that's with the Ravens having done a lot, this weekend included. With the trade for Willis McGahee, the return of Jonathan Ogden, the choice of two linemen in their first three picks and the expected maturation of the youngsters of recent drafts, the running game will be almost unrecognizable from last season's.

It has to be, because the Ravens have set the bar high: A repeat of last season, 13-3 record or not, is unacceptable.

It's the way the Patriots have raised that bar even higher that's causing whatever angst is out there. Remember last January: Brady had Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney as his wide receivers, and he had them one minute away from a Super Bowl berth in the AFC title game at the RCA Dome.

He also gets A.D. on defense this season. The Ravens, you might have heard, lose A.D. on defense.

Yikes.

With all due respect to the Patriots and Moss, counters Ozzie Newsome -- yikes, nothing.

"We go into the offseason with the goal to improve our own team, without the moves other teams have made in mind," he said after wrapping up the draft yesterday. "We want our shot back at the plate again, and what happens from there, with us and with other teams, we'll see.

"We established a plan back in January as to what our needs are, and we stick to that plan regardless."

That, of course, is how competitive teams stay competitive year after year -- no panicking, no trying to play chess with other teams' every action. If this Ravens draft is like past ones, they've reloaded in ways that might not become apparent until years from now -- so much so that no one might even miss the picks they gave up for McGahee and Steve McNair.

Recall that at this time last year, everyone was getting overheated about Haloti Ngata at No. 12 overall, but three picks made in the solitude of the second day ended up starting as well. Now, one is conditioned to closely watch a pick like the Ravens' last of the draft, Michigan linebacker Prescott Burgess, in case he turns into the next Thomas or Bart Scott after a couple of years running down on punts.

Or, in an even wilder yet no less plausible scenario, Troy Smith becoming the next Brady. Without the gruesome injuries to McNair and Kyle Boller to open the door, of course.

All of this optimism about the future is fine. Whether it will stop, or even slow, what in April looks like a Patriots juggernaut is another story.

The AFC was going to be a logjam anyway; the season ended with very little separating the Colts, Patriots, San Diego Chargers and Ravens. For what it's worth, Vegas didn't distinguish much among them, either. As of two weeks ago -- before the Moss trade, obviously -- one sports book had San Diego, Indianapolis and New England, in that order, as the favorites to win the Super Bowl in Arizona, with the Ravens sixth on the board.

On paper, the Colts, Ravens and Chargers seem to have broken even this offseason. The Patriots, by comparison, have surged to a couple-of-lengths lead.

Championships can very much be won and lost on draft day. Unfortunately for the Ravens, the Patriots may have won one on this draft day, with the fourth-round pick they gave up to the worst team in the NFL.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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