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Can Ravens dazzle in spotlight?


MIAMI - CAN'T YOU JUST HEAR CHRIS Berman now? Prime Time, Prime Time, Prime Time.

Now that the Ravens are legitimate playoff contenders, it's time to move on to the next step and stage.

A national television audience will get a chance to watch the Ravens play the Miami Dolphins tonight at Pro Player Stadium in the ESPN Sunday night game, but the team hasn't performed well on center stage.

Actually, the Ravens have been awful, with a 1-3 record.

Downright ugly.

Let's roll the tape from Nov. 9, 1997. The Pittsburgh Steelers shut out the Ravens, 37-0, as quarterback Vinny Testaverde struggled with the flu and bruised ribs. He threw four interceptions on the team's first four series, and the team committed seven turnovers that night.

The next day, owner Art Modell apologized to the fans of Baltimore, saying the game was an embarrassment to his franchise, players and family.

But that's all history now. At least that's what the current Ravens would like to believe.

This is the same team, but with more impact players and a different coach. Back then, the Ravens were trying to reach mediocrity. This year, it's playoffs or bust.

But playing well on national TV was a main topic at the team's Owings Mills complex last week.

"This team had a history of losing to Jacksonville," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "This team had a history of losing on the road to Pittsburgh. Playing on national television is just one more of those things we've got to knock down. This team is very aware of that, and we added to that last year when we stunk it up against Kansas City. Believe me, that has been foremost in my mind."

"We've put the challenge out there," Billick said. "I've never been more embarrassed professionally in my life as I was in the Kansas City game, and I imagine most of these guys feel the same way."

Ah, Kansas City. Another major source of embarrassment.

The Ravens lost, 35-8, as the Chiefs scored 28 second-half points. The Ravens had only 102 passing yards in that game, but at least they found a solid quarterback for the future. Starter Stoney Case, who couldn't hit the ground if he dropped the ball, threw three interceptions that night, two returned for touchdowns. Billick replaced him with Tony Banks and the Ravens won six of their 10 remaining games to finish 8-8.

The Ravens are still hot, and in the spotlight for one game. Billick knows a lot about fame. He once had a brief playing stint with America's team, the Dallas Cowboys, and then was the offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings in 1998 when they shattered the record for most points (541) scored in a season with 556.

But Compu Coach's analysis of the Ravens' past problems isn't complicated.

"Sometimes, the most obvious is what you're looking at," Billick said. "Why were we 0-8 against Jacksonville? Because Jacksonville was a better team. Why has this team not played well in national TV games for the last four or five years? Because we weren't a very good team. We've got some talent now; we've got some teamwork going and some good, solid structure working. That's an advantage compared to what we've had to face in the past."

The Ravens have had some bad luck, too. Testaverde played with the flu against the Steelers. When the Ravens lost their first nationally televised game, to the Indianapolis Colts, 26-21, on Oct. 13, 1996, the Ravens lost defensive end Rob Burnett (knee) and tackle Dan Footman (broken arm) in the first half.

The Ravens sacked Jim Harbaugh four times and limited him to 155 yards passing. They also held running back Marshall Faulk to 44 yards rushing on 19 carries.

And they still lost.

"I'm not superstitious," said Ravens left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. "We've had some rough games. That's in the past. You can't look at things like that. You go out and play the type of game you can play. All our preseason games are at night and we played well in them, right?

"Did we just play bad in those national games or did we play poorly in a lot of them?" Ogden said. "We had some bad games, period. What were we, 5-11 and 4-12? It's not like we were kicking butt all season."

But a win would provide more confidence. The Ravens (2-0) have won three consecutive games only twice in their history.

"It's a good opportunity to show everybody we are a good team and let everybody know what we're about," said Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary. "We need to show people that we're a lot different from previous Ravens teams. It's a nationally televised game, and if we keep the streak going, that's a pretty big statement."

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