Jonathan Ogden holds the line for the Ravens

Jonathan Ogden wants to stay in Baltimore, says he belongs in Hawaii in February for his third straight Pro Bowl, and is gradually accepting a new role as the leader on the Ravens' offensive line.

"If I think something needs to be said, I'll say it. But I'm still the fun-loving guy," Ogden said. "I don't hit a soul in practice. At game time, I'm very serious. Put anybody in front of me on game day, I'll hit him."

As he winds down his fourth NFL season and his third straight year as one of the league's premier left tackles, Ogden is relieved to have overcome a seriously sprained neck that made the entire month of October a physical struggle.

The same old Ogden has been on display in recent weeks. Put most pass rushers in front of him and watch Ogden, 6 feet 8 and 335 pounds, hit them, push them, toy with them.

Take Jacksonville's Tony Brackens, who probably will make his first Pro Bowl this season. In two November games, Brackens not only failed to collect a sack against Ogden, Brackens never got near quarterback Tony Banks.

Ogden counts the sacks he has allowed in four seasons on one hand. He chides himself for allowing Banks to get hit after releasing a pass "three or four times" in 1999.

Ogden watches himself on film, and he sees the physics working overwhelmingly in his favor. The long legs that give him such a wide base. The long arms that swallow up defenders.

And Ogden is still getting stronger in the weight room.

"I take up a lot of space and I'm bigger than everybody else. I don't think anybody can beat me if I'm on top of my game. If I play my game, I'm going to dominate," Ogden said.

"I think since I've put that [injury] behind me, I've been playing some pretty good football. We're definitely making progress [as a line]. We're protecting [the quarterback] and opening up holes when it counts. We're building, and we're going to keep on building."

Ravens coach Brian Billick has known since he took the job last January that Ogden was the prime building block up front. At that time, Ogden was about to start his second straight Pro Bowl.

Having watched him up close for nearly a full season, Billick shakes his head while talking about Ogden's gifts.

Ogden "is such a phenomenal athlete that he can make a mistake or take a bad step, then recover so quickly, you don't even notice it," Billick said. "I had three Pro Bowlers on the line in Minnesota, and Jonathan is as good as anyone I've been around, potentially. Clearly, he is a rare breed of cat. Longevity is what puts you in that elite class.

"No one is more competitive than Jonathan. No one is more tired of all of the losing around here than Jonathan. What he needs to do is take that to the next step. Jonathan is growing up. I see maturity in him."

Billick has enjoyed watching Ogden -- who has not missed a start this year -- step up his leadership role on the Ravens' patched-up line.

When right tackle Harry Swayne went down for the season with a broken foot, the Ravens lost their dean, a 13-year veteran with two Super Bowl rings. Left guard Everett Lindsay was forced to slide to right tackle. And into the leadership void stepped Ogden.

He's the one tutoring left guard Edwin Mulitalo on the side, fine-tuning the rookie's technique. He's the one making sure tight end Ryan Collins is lined up correctly.

Ogden remains the foundation of a line that includes steady center Jeff Mitchell and brutish run-blocker Jeff Blackshear at right guard. Ogden is the anchor on a line that has helped the offense pile up 65 points in the past two games.

"We're still having a few breakdowns that haven't cost us too much, and we're going to have to eliminate them," Ogden said.

Ogden, the first draft pick in the team's history, is only 25. After growing up in suburban Washington and attending St. Albans, a private school, he chose UCLA as his collegiate path to the pros. The Bruins retired his number in 1997.

Ogden developed an attachment to the sun and surf of Southern California, where he returns for lengthy visits in the off-season. He has built a home in Las Vegas.

Billick said he would like to see Ogden spend more time in the spring working on his game in Owings Mills. "It doesn't mean you have to live here year-round. But there's a certain responsibility beyond when the season is over," Billick said.

Ogden dismissed any notion that life on the West Coast intrigues him to the point of changing job addresses. He can become a free agent after the 2000 season, unless the Ravens re-sign him before then.

"I'll evaluate everything after the season is over, but I like the way things are going around here," Ogden said. "I like the offense, I like the way the defense is playing, I like the city, I like the people here. This is definitely a team I'd like to continue playing for."