Twist Of Fate

Since playoff meeting, Colts have surged and Ravens have sagged

Ravens Weekend

December 07, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

On that overcast January day from which the Ravens have not yet recovered, Steve McNair threw to tight end Todd Heap on the goal line and found safety Antoine Bethea instead.

Baltimore football history shuddered and pivoted on that pass.

A 13-3 team that had seemed poised to return to the Super Bowl spent the rest of the day chasing the Indianapolis Colts in a touchdownless, 15-6 loss in the AFC divisional playoffs. The Ravens were on the road to ruin.

The Colts, who had lost three of their last five regular-season games and given up 375 rushing yards in one of them, were on their way to a Super Bowl championship.

Almost a year later, the two teams' paths continue to diverge. Reinforced by their Lombardi Trophy, the Colts are 10-2, about to punch another ticket to the postseason. At 4-8, the frazzled Ravens are reduced to criticizing officials' calls, second-guessing Brian Billick's play-calling and finding bizarre ways to lose games.

The crossbar kickback? Check.

Their paths will cross one more time Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, two teams traveling in opposite directions. It wasn't the Ides of March that foiled the Ravens the last time they met, it was January's twist of playoff fate.

In truth, McNair's second-quarter interception didn't lose the game. But it served as the demarcation line upon which two franchises staked their futures. The Ravens never crossed the Indianapolis 31-yard line after that, finishing with two more turnovers. The Colts never got to the end zone, but produced five field goals by Adam Vinatieri.

Nose tackle Kelly Gregg still can't believe the Ravens didn't win after holding Peyton Manning to 170 passing yards.

"You think if you make them kick field goals at home in a playoff game, I'd have bet my house we'd have won that game," he said. "When they went to the Super Bowl, I said that could've been us. You do say `what if?' [But] that's the way it is."

The win was a launch point for the Colts. Winning on the road, in extremely hostile territory, was almost therapeutic.

"I think it was huge," Colts safety Bob Sanders said this week. "It set the tone for us the rest of the way. I think we really showed ourselves and everyone else that we could play well as long as we do the things we need to do. ... It was a positive game for us, and we kept building upon it."

If the win helped propel the Colts to Super Bowl history, did it also send the Ravens plummeting to 4-8?

It's hard to make that case. Especially when Colts coach Tony Dungy says he still sees a 13-3 team on tape when he watches this season's Ravens.

"The difference [in winning and losing] is so slight, and a lot of it is chemistry, it's energy," Dungy said. "It's very, very little things, and it's just making one critical play at the right time. Looking at [the Ravens] from the outside, you just see turnovers more than anything else. In the games they haven't turned the ball over, they've been just like the 13-3 team."

Consider this: In 2006, the Ravens' defense had 40 take-aways and were plus-17 in turnovers. So far in 2007, they have 30 giveaways and are minus-12.

"We've hit the trifecta this season," Billick said. "Too many turnovers, too many penalties, too many injuries, especially to key players. Two of those we can control, and we haven't."

The decline and ultimate season-ending shoulder injury of McNair had traumatic effects on the Ravens this season. In six starts, he had 11 turnovers, including seven lost fumbles. The 34-year-old quarterback injured almost every body part along the way, starting with the second play of the season, when he tweaked his groin.

Injuries mounted. The offensive line was depleted at one point. Heap has been limited to six games and 23 catches with hamstring woes. Both starting cornerbacks have been out at the same time. Pass rusher Trevor Pryce is done for the season. The defense gave up at least 27 points in six games - and the Ravens lost each time.

"We just haven't been making the plays we needed to make," linebacker Bart Scott said. "We had self-inflicted wounds. It was a bunch of things. There aren't any excuses."

Said Gregg: "We had a string of bad games, and we just haven't been able to recover. ... Everything that went right for us last year has gone wrong for us this year."

The bad karma even extended to the coach. Billick received a four-year contract extension at the end of last season, but one day after a stunning 19-14 loss to the Buffalo Bills, middle linebacker Ray Lewis criticized Billick's play-calling on his own radio show.

It was hardly the only criticism Billick fielded for calling plays.

Meanwhile, Dungy has written a book (Quiet Strength) that reached No. 1 on the New York Times' best-seller list. After years of preaching the same spiritual message, Dungy, a devout Christian, finally is being heard and sought out.

"Some of the things [I] have said for 20 years and tried to do, all of a sudden, it now seems novel or new because you won the Super Bowl and people want to know what you thought on this or that," Dungy said.

"That's kind of funny that it is that much different. But you are sought out more and asked more and in the public eye more after winning."

Getting that pulpit hasn't changed Dungy, though.

"Not at all," Sanders said. "He's definitely still the same coach, the same man. ... There hasn't been much changed around here since we won a Super Bowl, and I don't think it will."

The change is in Baltimore, where the Ravens are still trying to figure out how they lost in the playoffs last season.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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