On Ravens, cooler heads prevail

December 23, 2008|By MIKE PRESTON

The Ravens might believe it's too early to talk about playoffs because they haven't clinched a spot yet, but the Ravens won't lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday in the regular-season finale.

It's not a bold prediction, especially with the way the Jaguars have struggled this season. It's simply based on the personality of the Ravens.

With some teams, you might worry about a meltdown because of the pressure surrounding the game, but the Ravens never panic. In fact, that will be their main strength heading into the postseason.

The Ravens just have a cool temperament.

This NFL season has been crazy. We've seen teams rise up like the Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans. We've seen traditional powers remain strong like the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. And we've seen others - like the Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles - live, die, live, die and come back to life again.

And what about the Ravens?

They came from nowhere. Few people expected them to win more than six games this season, but with one regular-season game remaining, they have been one of the NFL's most consistent teams.

Why? Because the Ravens are cool. Nothing unsettles them.

They lose their two starting quarterbacks because of injuries in the preseason and have to start rookie Joe Flacco, who isn't from Penn State or Michigan but Delaware.

No big deal. The Ravens have won 10 games, with Flacco starting each one, and with a rookie head coach.

When the NFL announced that the Ravens had to play six of eight games on the road starting Oct. 12 because of the hurricane that struck Houston, Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan just shrugged it off and said, "We need this."

Huh? Who needs that kind of stretch?

Instead, the Ravens won six of the eight, including four on the road.

They lose their starting running back, Willis McGahee, to injury and complacency and insert second-year fullback Le'Ron McClain at tailback, and their running game is still effective.

On Saturday night, the Ravens played an ambush game against Dallas, where former Cowboys greats came to visit in the last regular-season game in Texas Stadium. The Ravens left a crowd of 63,800 and the NFL stunned with a 33-24 victory.

Despite several injuries to the offensive line and in the secondary this season, which would have caused lesser teams to cry, complain and possibly fold, the Ravens have continued to win. And they keep getting better.

After losing close games to Tennessee and Pittsburgh (twice) and being routed by the Indianapolis Colts and the Giants, there was a valid argument that Flacco and the Ravens couldn't win a big game.

That changed Saturday night with the win over Dallas. Earlier in the season, Flacco would try to hold on to the ball and make plays, but his passes would get intercepted because he didn't know where his receivers were.

Against the Cowboys, he held on to the ball until the last second like the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger and threw darts to receivers for key third-down conversions. He's not just managing games, which is what average quarterbacks do. He's starting to win them.

Like the rest of his team, Joe really is cool.

The Ravens are confident. In some cases, they might be so young on offense they don't understand they're supposed to lose, or they might have so many defensive veterans they don't give a darn.

The Ravens have won four of their past five games. Going into the playoffs, there is usually one team the experts like to say is the team no one wants to play.

There really isn't that team this season, especially in the AFC. Nobody is afraid of the Ravens, and the Ravens aren't afraid of any other team. Their chances of playoff success are good because they have already proven they can compete against the AFC's best teams and they can win on the road with a rookie quarterback who plays better in away games than at home.

Where the Ravens have an advantage is in coaching. They are always well-prepared. After the game Saturday night, Cowboys fans couldn't believe how unprepared their team was for the many Ravens blitzes and how the Ravens made adjustments to slow Dallas' pass rush, which had five sacks in the first half and none in the second.

The Ravens have a certain degree of unpredictability. Ryan is always coming up with some new package. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has a deep bag of trick plays, and the fake field goal Saturday night was a beauty.

But overall, the Ravens are just sound and confident. They've risen from the bottom to near the top, and there is no pressure on them to win. They have been unshakable, which is why they'll beat the Jaguars on Sunday.

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