Baltimore, we're back as contender

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AS THE FINAL GUN sounded, Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary lay face down around midfield. On one sideline, coach Brian Billick hugged tight end Shannon Sharpe and quarterback Tony Banks. On the other sideline, several Ravens danced in front of the Jacksonville Jaguars' bench.

Go ahead, mark it down. Sept. 10, 2000. It's the day the Ravens finally beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, 39-36, at PSINet Stadium, and Baltimore finally became a real player again in the NFL.

The Ravens have had some other special moments, like the team's 20-17 win against the Washington Redskins in 1997, when the franchise and the city were still getting acquainted, or in 1998, when the Ravens beat the Indianapolis Colts, 38-31, to provide some closure to the former franchise that left under the cover of darkness in 1984.

But nothing topped yesterday's win in which the Ravens overcame a 17-0 deficit with 17 fourth-quarter points, including a seven-play, 75-yard drive in the last 1:45 that resulted in a 29-yard, game-winning touchdown pass from Banks to Sharpe with 41 seconds left in the game.

Not only did the team get Godzilla off its back in winning its first game against two-time defending AFC Central champion Jacksonville after eight previous tries, but the Ravens sent a statement to the league and this city that they are legitimate playoff contenders for the first time in the franchise's five-year history.

The buzz could be felt around the city's 3-year-old stadium as the sellout crowd of 68,843 gave the team a standing ovation after its first Miracle on Russell Street.

Who cares if Mike Mussina re-signs or if Cal Ripken retires?

"Every game in the NFL is a dogfight," said Billick, trying to downplay the victory. "You cannot put an increased importance on one opponent regardless of the circumstances that justify it - divisional game, championship club, a team we haven't beaten before. Those are legitimate concepts, but you cannot buy into that as a team. What are you going to say three, four, six, eight and 10 weeks from now when a team comes in here that's struggling and it's 2-6 or 5-10 or whatever it is? Really, I'm not trying to minimize the win here."

Oh, really?

Then why did the Ravens say Billick would be a little late for his regular post-game news conference because he was still trying to get himself together?

And if this was just another game, then why was there so much national media in The House?

C'mon, Compu Coach, tell us how you really feel.

"This town had been without football for 13 years," Billick said. "They have been supporting this organization without a lot of wins on the field. It would have been easy to just say we want a winning record this season, but we have high expectations, and the fans have embraced them. They followed through, and I think this was a coming-out party for the city of Baltimore to a degree. This solidified football is back in Baltimore via the National Football League, and this is a good feeling. Now, we've got to follow up with it."

Today Sports Illustrated and ESPN, tomorrow Oprah and Letterman. Can't you see the next book on the best-seller's list: "Winning Ways," by Brian Billick.

But yesterday's win wasn't just about exposure.

It was about the Ravens' offense finally winning a game in the last minute. It was about the team having players such as Banks, Sharpe and rookie receiver Travis Taylor who can make an impact. It was about character and guts from a team that could have quit when receiver Jimmy Smith hauled in the carom of an underthrown pass and ran the final 12 yards for a touchdown that put the Jaguars ahead 36-32 with 1:45 left in the game.

"I imagine the medic as PSINet Stadium was busy with people jumping on and off the bandwagon from quarter to quarter," Billick said.

But instead of quitting, Banks took charge on the next possession. He threw passes of 19 and 14 yards on the team's game-winning drive. He then threw a 12-yard pass to fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo before throwing the game-winner to Sharpe.

Besides completing 23 of 40 passes for 262 yards and five touchdowns - four in the second half - yesterday, Banks now has solidified his spot as a team leader. Any potential quarterback controversy is on the shelf for a few more weeks.

Banks had a little swagger going after the game.

"I've won games toward the end, but never in this fashion, by stinking it up in the first half and throwing five touchdown passes. You can't ask for anything more. I felt like Kurt Warner," Banks said.

Let him have his fun. He delivered, and so did Taylor and Sharpe. When Qadry Ismail, the team's best receiver, went down with a knee injury with 11:07 left in the first quarter, Taylor moved to his position and caught four passes for 80 yards.

No big deal, eh?

Not unless you consider that Taylor never took a snap at that position in practice or training camp and that one of his receptions was a 14-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and another was a 23-yard touchdown catch in the third.

And then there was Sharpe. He was brought in to provide leadership and make big plays. The TD was the biggest of the game.

That's what made this win so impressive. The Ravens couldn't rely on their defense. Jacksonville had 421 yards of total offense against a good Ravens defense that still has to prove it can take that next step to greatness.

Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell passed for 386 yards and receiver Jimmy Smith had 15 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns. Fellow receiver Keenan McCardell had seven catches for 61 yards and between them they ran the Ravens young cornerbacks out of the stadium.

Banks also threw two interceptions.

And the Ravens still won.

Maybe the Jacksonville jinx is over. After losing five of the previous eight games by a field goal or less, the Ravens won despite Jacksonville's offensive players who have been Ravens killers.

The Ravens now are in first place of the AFC Central, they finally showed a balanced team and their fans became the 12th man, three times forcing Brunell into timeouts when the Jaguars couldn't hear his check-offs.

In 1996, Jacksonville defeated the Ravens, 30-27, in Jacksonville, and the Jaguars went on to win five of their next six games and make the playoffs for the first time in team history. The Jaguars said that game was the turning point in their franchise.

They probably turned around the Ravens yesterday.

"This win shows the direction we're headed in against a pretty good team. They have won the last two division titles," McCrary said. "These fans supported us when we were losing. But now we're winning, playing well. I think football is back. All the way back."

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