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When there's little at stake, we'll learn a lot

The truth of the matter is that the 4-8 Ravens' next four games may tell us more about this team than the one played Monday against the New England Patriots.

Not that the Patriots game wasn't important. It was. It told us that this team still has a pulse and that its veteran defense can still play passionately and efficiently. It told us that defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's schemes still work when the right players are there to make them work. It told us that quarterback Kyle Boller can play at a high level, if not flawlessly, against superior opposition. It told us that, as many have suspected, this is a team that can run the ball when given the chance, and that the investment in Willis McGahee was worth it.

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But the next four games will tell us much more. For instance, whether the Ravens' defensive drive can be as fiery and their determination as steadfast when they're playing in Seattle Dec. 23 in front of a hostile crowd and there's no national spotlight. And whether Boller can maintain the concentration and focus to channel his considerable physical talents. And whether the commitment to run the football and use that expensive running back will continue.

But more than anything, what will be tested is whether coach Brian Billick can keep his team stoked with no more artificial "Super Bowls" on the line. Remember, that's how cornerback Samari Rolle characterized the game against New England. That motivation is gone now. Fans may believe there's something special about the Indianapolis Colts coming to town Sunday, and for a certain segment of this community, the Colts will always be marked. And, of course, there's a revenge motive as well for last season's playoff loss.

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But then there will be games against Miami and Seattle that will have little meaning in the standings for the Ravens. And finally, in the final game of the season, the Steelers certainly will have more at stake than the Ravens in likely cold conditions on Dec. 30.

And so the test of leadership -- and an indicator of how Baltimore should approach the offseason -- will be determined by whether the Ravens, in the next four games, can prevail in the crucible of "So what?"

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