Back on road, Ravens try to step on the gas; Bruised, 0-3 Falcons seem vulnerable today


ATLANTA -- The next two games could define the true character of the 1999 Ravens.

The Ravens will be on the road for the next two weeks, beginning today at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where they'll face the defending NFC-champion Falcons (0-3). Then they'll travel to Nashville, Tenn., where next Sunday they'll play the AFC Central-leading Tennessee Titans (3-0).

Since Brian Billick became coach Jan. 19, there have been whispers about the Ravens (1-2) becoming a possible playoff team if they could stay near .500 and steal a win or two on the road. Well, they're traveling, and the Falcons are a battered team.

Top running back Jamal Anderson is out for the season with a knee injury. Starting quarterback Chris Chandler isn't expected to play because of a hamstring problem. Ditto for kick returner Tim Dwight, one of the best in the league.

Three of the team's top defensive linemen -- Travis Hall (thumb), Shane Dronett (calf) and Chuck Smith (turf toe) -- have been slowed by injuries.

Does it get any better than this for a team on the road?

"It's certainly going to be a test for us," Billick said. "It's a game on the road for us, the first in two straight weeks. It's also a test because of the last game we played on the road.

"I've stressed to the players that when you're on the road, it's a business trip. Even if your plane is late, if you don't like your bed, if you don't like the food, you have to take care of business, and that's the mentality needed. We're going in against a team that is 0-3 and coached by Dan Reeves, so we better expect their best game."

Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary said: "I'm excited about this game just to see what we do with the opportunity. Either Jacksonville or Pittsburgh is going to be 2-2 after Sunday, so if we win, that puts us right in the mix. In the past, we've never stepped up when we had the chance. I want to see what happens this year."

The Ravens' last traveling show was a farce. The team surrendered 350 total yards and basically laid down in a 27-10, season-opening loss to the St. Louis Rams as quarterback Kurt Warner made his debut with St. Louis.

Since then, Stoney Case has replaced Scott Mitchell as the Ravens' quarterback, and Errict Rhett is now the No. 1 running back over Priest Holmes. But the offense is still inconsistent, averaging 283 yards a game.

Defensively, the Ravens are ranked No. 6 in the league, but they couldn't stop St. Louis, the most-talented offense they've faced this season. The Ravens will probably face another no-name quarterback today in Tony Graziani, who has completed 22 of 39 passes for 274 yards while filling in for the injured Chandler. Graziani, a left-hander, has one touchdown and one interception.

"He's a running threat, as opposed to Chandler," McCrary said. "He likes to take off and run to my side, which Kordell Stewart had success in doing. I have to be more cautious, not allow him outside. This is a team that doesn't give up a lot of sacks, so it's going to be a nice battle."

The Ravens, who have 10 sacks, are expected to blitz Graziani often, especially since neither of Atlanta receivers is overly fast. Chris Calloway and Terance Mathis are considered more possession receivers than game-breakers.

Offensively, the Ravens might try to establish the run early. Rhett is making his third straight start after rushing for 214 yards on 44 carries in the last two games. Billick is not sure how much playing time, if any, former starter Holmes will get.

Holmes has been nursing a strained knee since the first half of the Rams' game. The Ravens are averaging 123 yards rushing a game.

"We must come out with a victory," Rhett said. "It's going to be tough going down there, but I think we're totally prepared. We're going to see some things we haven't seen and are going to have to adjust to them. We have to be more physical, be able to run the ball and pass. It doesn't matter how you win them, just win them. Get down there and be physical."

Ravens starting left guard Everett Lindsay isn't concerned about how many injured players the Falcons have.

"Every game is important, regardless of if they have 20 guys hurt or one guy hurt," Lindsay said. "They are a little down right now. Hopefully, we can go down there and beat them."

This will be the second straight start for Case. His 12-for-25 performance for 165 yards and three interceptions last week easily could have led to a loss, but the Ravens were playing the Browns, an expansion team. If he has three interceptions today, the Ravens don't figure to be as fortunate.

Billick's confidence in Case, though, hasn't waned. He likes his offense's chemistry, even though the Ravens are averaging only 160 passing yards a game.

"You don't like to do that," said Billick of the change from Mitchell to Case. "Certainly, I was the biggest advocate for bringing Scott Mitchell here and starting him. But you owe it to the team to put the best players on the field and play well together. Stoney seems to fit in and give the offense a lift. Now, he'll struggle some and make some bad plays, but I like his reaction when he does make a mistake. He doesn't panic about it. He's already looking for the next opportunity to show you how good he believes he is."

Reeves has just as much confidence in his team despite its 0-3 start. He said the losing hasn't had any effect on his health. Last year, Reeves had heart surgery during the season.

"We need to get a win to get our confidence back," he said. "All we are thinking about is the negative thing that happens when you lose. So we need to win as quick as we can. Our first opportunity is this week, so we need to make the most of it. If you don't play well, anybody in the NFC can beat you. We played two playoff teams and a team at home that had two weeks to get ready for us coming off a Monday night game.

"My heart is fine. Anytime you lose three in a row like this, it takes a lot out of you. It's a tough profession. I've been there before. You just have to turn it around. It doesn't happen because you talk about it. It happens because you work at it."

Ravens today

Ravens at Falcons

Site: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

Time: 1 p.m.

Line: Falcons by 3

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)


Sun staff writer Mike Preston analyzes the matchups.

Falcons, Ravens statistics and rosters.

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