Finally, game day in Baltimore Amid hype and hope, city host to NFL game for first time since '83; 65,248 expected at Memorial; Ravens vs. Raiders starts more history; KICKING OFF A NEW ERA


The city of Baltimore will hold its coming-out party today when the Ravens play host to the Oakland Raiders at 1 p.m. at Memorial Stadium, but the players may not celebrate until the big dance is over.

After 12 years of waiting for the return of the NFL, a sellout crowd of 65,248 will get to see the first regular-season game involving a Baltimore NFL team since the Colts defeated the Houston Oilers, 20-10, on Dec. 18, 1983.

But in contrast to that cold, damp day on March 28, 1984, when the Colts left town under the cover of darkness for Indianapolis, this will be a day filled with pageantry and glitz, a time when the city summons back its legends of the past to welcome its heroes of the future.

It's a great gesture from the city to a new owner and his team, but just another part of the celebrations the Ravens will ignore until they finish a three-hour rumble with the Raiders in the season opener for both teams.

The Ravens aren't party-poopers, just realists.

"We can't get caught up in the celebrations too soon because if we lose, there is nothing to celebrate," said Ravens receiver Michael Jackson. "If we lose, it puts a big damper on everything."

But the players know this game is something special. They see and feel it everywhere they go. Baltimoreans are eager to embrace this team, and a win would be something special.

"I realized there were great fans here during the Green Bay [preseason] game," said Ravens offensive tackle Tony Jones. "It was pouring down raining and they all stayed. If that's me and it's raining that hard during a preseason game, well, see ya, I'm gone."

Ravens quarterback Vinny Testaverde said: "This city has been buzzing since preseason, and I think it's going to carry over onto the field. The players are looking forward to getting the season started and doing something special for the fans."

The Ravens say they have some unfinished business. As the Cleveland Browns, they were picked in 1995 by several preseason publications to play in the Super Bowl, but finished 5-11 under former coach Bill Belichick.

This season most of the national media are picking the Ravens to finish last in the AFC Central. But the team has a new coach in Ted Marchibroda, who has instilled a new attitude. Marchibroda's motto for 1996 is "Why Not Us?"

"I don't think we have to worry about the Oakland Raiders. The Oakland Raiders have to worry about us," said Jackson.

Marchibroda said: "I don't think there is a favorite in the division. Who would you make the favorite? That certainly hurt the Steelers, losing quarterback Neil O'Donnell and offensive tackle Leon Searcy. I think it's an open division at this particular time, really. We're the equal of any team in our division."

The Raiders are back in Oakland, but a team still in transition from its glory days. The Raiders lost their final six games last year and could be hampered this season by injuries and the surprise resignation Aug. 17 of defensive coordinator John Fox.

The Raiders will play without starting quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who is recovering from a knee injury suffered in the preseason.

"I'm not sure anybody knows what to expect after training camp," said Raiders coach Mike White. "We had some problems. Our defensive coordinator resigned halfway through camp, we had a lot of injuries. On the surface, we were sort of in fragments.

"But I have a good feeling about this team. Starting the first game without your No. 1 quarterback and with the internal transition we've had, we have some ready-made excuses, but we're not going to do that. This team has been in transition for about 12 years. We're kind of used to dealing with adversity."

The Ravens hope they have put their problems aside from a year ago, when the team's announced move from Cleveland to Baltimore proved a distraction. They want to hitch a ride on an offensive line that physically is one of the biggest, and potentially one of the best, in the league.

The Ravens have perhaps the strongest safety tandem in the NFL in Eric Turner and Stevon Moore, and a defensive line that played surprisingly well in the preseason. But many questions will be answered for the Ravens today.

Can rookie left guard Jonathan Ogden handle one of the league's best defensive tackles, Chester McGlockton? Will halfback Leroy Hoard bounce back from losing his starting job to Earnest Byner, 33? Can rookie middle linebacker Ray Lewis handle the pressures of a full game in the NFL? Will the Ravens' right cornerback position turn into a revolving door? How much has Testaverde progressed under Marchibroda?

"Our team has come together pretty well," said Jones. "We're ready to start the season and see where we're at. We're real close to having something really good here. We just have to keep it together and keep working hard."

One thing is certain: the crowd will be into the game.

"The main thing that concerns me is the 75,000 people who are going to be there pumping those guys up," said Raiders receiver Tim Brown. "We have to find a way to keep the crowd out of the game early. If they make a couple of plays and get that crowd going, it's going to be a long day for us."

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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