The last time the Ravens played the Houston Oilers, quarterback Vinny Testaverde threw three interceptions, the rest of the team collapsed with him en route to a 29-13 loss and Testaverde guaranteed he would not play as poorly again.
In retrospect, that Sept. 15 game defined the direction in which the Ravens would spiral throughout their inaugural season. Since falling to a 1-2 record that day, the Ravens have dropped into the AFC Central's basement with a 4-11 record, having lost six of their past seven games.
But the Ravens have progressed since that lopsided defeat in the half-empty Astrodome, where they fell behind quickly, 14-0, and never made it a contest.
Testaverde regrouped to put together his first Pro Bowl season, and his offense turned into one of the AFC's most prolific.
On the other hand, the Ravens have found different ways to lose a close game nearly every week, typically by blowing a second-half lead. The usual culprit has been an injury-prone defense short on talent and depth.
Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda pretty much guaranteed that his players would not take a casual approach to their rematch with visiting Houston in Sunday's season finale.
"These guys very easily could have backed off a little bit over the past three or four weeks, but they haven't. I don't expect it to be any different this week," Marchibroda said.
"We played against three teams [Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Carolina] in the past four weeks who are headed for the playoffs. We beat one and took the others down to the wire. We're not that far away. I don't think I'm looking through rose-colored glasses. I have to believe that's true."
Marchibroda said a review of the first Houston game on tape revealed more dramatically what he already knew -- that the Ravens' offense has grown remarkably since stumbling through September. After the offense laid an egg at the Astrodome, the Ravens refined their attack during the bye week that followed.
Over the past 11 games, the Ravens have averaged 25.8 points on the strength of Testaverde's arm, running back Bam Morris' legs and the hands of wideouts Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander. Their 350 points rank third in the conference.
"We've come a long way as an offensive club since then," Marchibroda said. "All of our coaches mentioned it."
The Ravens talked about paying back the Oilers, who are also out of the playoff hunt.
"I was hoping they still had a chance at the playoffs, so we could knock them out," reserve safety Bennie Thompson said of the Oilers. "We owe those guys, anyway. We've lost a lot of close games this year, but they were one of the few teams who actually jumped on us and beat us. They just flat out beat us up."
That day in Houston, the Ravens lost backup defensive end Rick Lyle to a broken leg and linebacker Mike Caldwell to a knee injury. Lyle has since returned to the lineup, and Caldwell, after coming back successfully from surgery to repair chipped articular cartilage in his right knee, he incurred the same injury against Pittsburgh on Dec. 1, ending his season. Caldwell had the same surgery yesterday.
Tight end Eric Green has a similar injury in his left knee, and he will have surgery during the first week in January.
Ravens trainer Bill Tessendorf said he expects wide receiver Alexander (left shoulder strain) and middle linebacker Ray Lewis (hip pointer) to play on Sunday. He said center Steve Everitt (pectoral muscle) is "getting stronger" and could play this week, depending on a game-day decision.
Tessendorf added that backup offensive lineman Herman Arvie, who suffered a spinal-cord contusion 10 days ago in Cincinnati and is out for the season, will be evaluated by specialists in Cleveland and California before his future is determined next month.
When asked if Arvie's injury is career-threatening, Tessendorf said, "They all are," referring to spinal-cord injuries.
NOTES: Twenty-nine Ravens players were out in the community yesterday. Players made appearances at the general pediatric ward at the University of Maryland Medical Center, at the Ravens' Courage House at St. Vincent Center, and at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center's burn unit. Running back Earnest Byner received the NFL's "Extra Effort" award for November for making significant contributions in the community.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Houston Oilers
Site: Memorial Stadium
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Ravens by 3