PITTSBURGH — PITTSBURGH-- --The Ravens' 2007 season will be at the crossroads tonight in Pittsburgh when they face the Steelers.
The outcome will speak volumes about the second half of the season. If the Ravens win, they'll put themselves back into position to win the AFC North or gain a postseason berth.
If they lose, they're probably headed for a second-half dive.
Actually, it's time for the Ravens (4-3) to start living up to the high expectations and all their tough talk during the offseason.
We've all heard it before. Some of the Ravens said the Indianapolis Colts stole their championship rings last season. Ray Lewis has talked about this being the best defense on "the planet." Which planet, I'm not sure.
Some of them talked about how they were top contenders and in the same class with the Colts and New England Patriots. Yeah, right. Well, tonight, we'll just see if they're in the same class as the Steelers (5-2).
A lot of people believe the Ravens are a notch below Pittsburgh despite the Ravens only being a game behind them in the AFC North.
You can't blame them. The Ravens have looked really terrible at times, actually painful to watch.
The optimist can point out that the Ravens have one of the league's top receivers in Derrick Mason and one of the NFL's best running backs in Willis McGahee. They'll show you that the Ravens are one of the league's leaders in time of possession and have one of the NFL's best defenses.
But it's misleading. The realist knows that the Ravens are one of the least-effective teams in the red zone as far as scoring touchdowns, and the play-calling has been poor.
According to coach Brian Billick and quarterback Steve McNair, it's only a matter of time before the offense gets better.
Hmmm. Weren't we hearing that nine years ago? A lot of chatter, but no substance. But let's see if Billick and McNair can back it up tonight. It seems as though the Ravens will have to score a lot of points because they are expected to be without starting cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle.
A miracle might be easier to pull off, but if the Ravens win, it will be a major statement. It would signal that the 13-3 team from last season is indeed back and possibly a contender again.
The Super Bowl rhetoric and the lifting of purple champagne glasses might start up again. That's what most of us expected for 2007. A lot of us thought the Ravens were a great team, but on the road to the Super Bowl, the Ravens have been injured a lot and looking quite old.
They've lost offensive linemen Jonathan Ogden, Adam Terry, Mike Flynn, defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, McNair, Rolle and tight end Todd Heap for extensive periods because of injuries.
And while the Ravens haven't said it directly, they have used the injuries as an excuse. Maybe it's valid, and maybe it isn't. But we'll find out tonight, because most of the injured starters are returning to the lineup.
We'll find out if the pass rush is better with Pryce in the lineup. We'll find out if the running game improves, especially in short-yardage situations, with three offensive line starters back in the lineup.
A lot of questions should be answered. Because unlike previous games in which the Ravens were playing teams such as the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, they are in the Steelers' house tonight in a nationally televised game.
If the Ravens lose, the uphill fight will become even greater. That would put them two games behind Pittsburgh, with the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns coming to town the next two weeks.
But then the Ravens hit the killer part of the schedule, traveling to San Diego, and then hosting New England and Indianapolis in back-to-back night games on national television.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, because that's how the Ravens got in this hole in the first place. Even when they were just barely winning games earlier in the season, they kept talking about how great they were, and how a "win is a win."
Meanwhile, there were critics on the outside who kept seeing more and more weaknesses. These were signs that the Ravens weren't worthy of the "elite" tag.
While the Ravens were in denial and saying all the wrong things, the Patriots were winning and kept talking about how they needed to improve on their running game or red-zone defense.
But now it's time for the Ravens to 'fess up. No more talking. In Pittsburgh tonight, this is the time when actions speak a lot louder than words.