Eastern block?

Ravens' road weaves through NFC East's four tough teams, but as 'bully-type team,' club could well be up to challenge

November 14, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

The road to a prospective playoff berth for the Ravens passes through the Meadowlands this weekend. The territory is not new to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who prepped for the trip with 10 years in the NFC East.

Harbaugh revisits his past Sunday when the Ravens meet the New York Giants. The best division in the Super Bowl era still flows through his blood.

"I'm more comfortable [playing] them than maybe some of the teams in the AFC North right now, personally," he said this week. "But you know what? The coach doesn't play the game. The players do."

For the Ravens, Sunday marks the beginning of six weeks in which they play the four NFC East teams. Around division games against the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, it's an ambitious stretch run that will determine Baltimore's playoff viability in Harbaugh's first season.

Even though they play in different conferences, the Ravens have ample insight into the Giants. In addition to Harbaugh's coaching experience in the NFC East, cornerback Frank Walker and inside linebacker Nick Greisen are former Giants draft picks who played for coach Tom Coughlin.

"I loved it," said Walker, who signed as a free agent with the Ravens this offseason after a year in Green Bay and four in New York. "It's a class-act organization."

Greisen also spent four formative years with the Giants: "I went from a small town of 9,000 people in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., to 8 million, and it really helped me to find who I was as an individual and who I was going to be."

The Giants (8-1) aren't just defending Super Bowl champions; they're also the best team from the NFL's best division. The NFC East has won 11 Super Bowls and made 19 appearances, more than any other division. (The AFC North has won six and made nine appearances.) It's a division that has a rich history of suffocating, physical defense, outstanding running backs and elite coaches.

What sets the division apart in Walker's mind, though, is the running game.

"In the NFC, it's more like an attitude game," he said. "Everybody wants to pound the ball down your throat. In the AFC, teams predominantly like to pass, but there are a lot of smash-mouth teams in the AFC, also."

The run philosophy is one that Wilbert Montgomery, the Ravens' running backs coach, is well acquainted with. He rushed for 6,538 yards for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1977 through 1984, guiding the Eagles to the Super Bowl after the 1980 season.

From his perspective, the difference between the NFC East and other divisions is December weather.

"You're going to play cold-weather games and you've got to be able to run the ball in cold weather," Montgomery said. "You're talking about playing on the East Coast, and half the season your games will be in wintertime.

"The elements in wintertime tilt the scale more to your favor."

The Ravens qualify under all those criteria.

"We're physical, big, strong," Montgomery said. "We are a bully-type team. If you play in the AFC North, you walk under that same umbrella."

The Ravens and Giants are like-minded teams whose franchises have been built with similar priorities. Both teams feature a stout defense and a strong running game. Both use three running backs with different skills in a diversified game plan.

The Giants' running game is borrowed, more or less, from the Steelers, said Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, whose father, Buddy, coached the Eagles from 1986 to 1990.

"When [Giants offensive coordinator Kevin] Gilbride was in Pittsburgh, that's the same rushing attack [they had] back then," Ryan said. "He took the Bill Cowher rushing attack, sent it over to the Giants, and they're running the same plays. That's been an excellent run offense for a number of years, and it still is right now."

So far, the NFC East holds a 6-2 advantage in its season series with the AFC North. The only AFC North victories are by the Cleveland Browns (35-14 over the Giants on Oct. 13) and the Steelers (23-6 over the Washington Redskins on Nov. 3).

The Ravens are the only division team that hasn't played the NFC East yet. The Steelers, who share first place with the Ravens at 6-3, are 1-2 in interconference matchups this year. They lost to the Eagles and Giants before beating the Redskins.

Asked this week about similarities between the two teams, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis drew his own distinction.

"They like to run the ball, their defense is very aggressive and our defense is very aggressive," Lewis said. "It's kind of the same mold. ... Overall, you can see some nice similarities. I just think everybody carries their own identity, though."

As an Eagles assistant coach, Harbaugh was 9-13 in 10 years against the Giants, splitting two playoff games. He said this week he didn't have the NFC East profile in mind when he started building his roster last summer.

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