Going down playoff checklist


Four weeks deep in a season of heightened expectation, the Ravens look every bit the playoff contender they professed to be before it started.

They dominated Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in shutout wins. They jumped the Jacksonville Jaguars for 32 second-half points and a huge psychological victory. They were outplayed - and outcoached - by the Miami Dolphins in a South Florida downpour.

At 3-1, the Ravens lead the AFC Central Division after finishing 8-8 in third place a year ago. In the business world, you could call it a hostile takeover. In the NFL, it's business as usual.

"We've beaten the teams we're supposed to beat, we've won our division games, and we've won at home," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel. "I think these are the things you have to do in order to become a playoff team."

What to make of a 3-1 start filled with wonderment?

How do you define an offense that scored at will every other week, but struggled to reach the end zone in Pittsburgh and Miami?

What do you say about a defense that gave up 10 plays of 20-plus yards in the first three games - and no plays over 14 yards in the fourth?

"We're progressing, which is all you can really hope for," coach Brian Billick said yesterday. "At four games, we're really developing that team defense mentality, so we feel good about that.

"We've got a ways to go offensively, but we're showing the signs that we're playing good, comprehensive, fully-dimensional offense."

Comprehensive, fully-dimensional offense? It means the Ravens are using a lot of players, a lot of formations, and getting production with virtually all of them.

"It's nice, after four games, to be 3-1 and feeling pretty good about ourselves," said offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. "But now we're starting the second quarter of the season with a much tougher schedule. We need to continue to do the things we've been doing."

In the next four weeks, the Ravens play three division opponents, starting with Sunday's reunion with the Cleveland Browns. Then they sandwich important division games with Jacksonville (away) and Tennessee (home) around a visit to the Washington Redskins.

The games with Jacksonville and Tennessee figure to say a lot about how the division race breaks - and whether the Ravens are playing for home-field advantage in December or a wild-card berth.

Tight end Shannon Sharpe, a veteran of two Super Bowls, didn't shy away from the prospect of talking about those games yesterday.

"I wasn't impressed with [either of] those teams you just mentioned," Sharpe said. "That's why I'm here, because I wasn't impressed with them.

"We feel we can beat Jacksonville; we've beaten them. And we get an opportunity in a week or two to see if we're for real and go down to their place. If we just beat them here, people will just say, OK, it's at home, they just got pumped up for the game. But I think the tell-tale sign for a good football team is to go into someone's backyard and beat them [there] also."

That's easy to say when your defense has thrown three shutouts in the last six games, when it has allowed just five red-zone penetrations - and only two red-zone touchdowns - this season.

Talk about stifling. The next three teams in red-zone penetrations - Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Detroit - have all allowed eight. Were it not for three long touchdown passes given up against the Jaguars, the Ravens' defense would be almost impenetrable.

"I think we're kind of developing an identity again," said defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "For us to go out every week and win third down is critical, because teams are going to spend a majority of their time trying some way to convert third downs. That's where our focus has to be.

"The pleasing part is we've had [linebacker] Jamie Sharper step forward, [safety] Kim Herring step forward, [defensive tackle] Sam Adams and [defensive end] Rob Burnett step forward, and [safety] Rod Woodson pick up where he left off last year. I think those guys have helped make this a better team."

The Ravens' calling card on defense, though, is their performance against the run. They've allowed league lows of 2.1 yards per carry and 46.5 per game. Adams, joining tackle Tony Siragusa inside, has fortified what was already a very good run defense.

"Sam has brought us a truly explosive force up front," Lewis said. "He and Goose have formed a good bond inside."

While Burnett leads the team with 4 1/2 sacks, his pass-rushing counterpart at right end, Michael McCrary, is expanding his repertoire. McCrary has just 1 1/2 sacks, but 25 tackles.

"He's been a destructive force against the run game," Lewis said of McCrary. "It's his best football since he's been here."

The Ravens' best offense is just around the corner. The arrival of running back Jamal Lewis as a force on Sunday gave quarterback Tony Banks another weapon in an ever-expanding arsenal. Priest Holmes debuted against Cincinnati as a quality change-of-pace back and yet another threat. The Ravens can play with two tight ends or four wide-outs, such is their versatility.

"The backs are the ones who make it fall in place," Cavanaugh said of the offensive diversity. "If we can substitute the way we did with those two, and have some good balance between the run and pass, then we'll be in pretty good shape."

If the Ravens' offense can dictate to opponents the way their defense does, they'll be in great shape. Cavanaugh believes it will happen.

"Eventually we will," he said. "I don't know that we're there yet. I don't know if we're close yet. I do know we're making improvement every week, and as I continue to say, we'll be as good as Tony Banks is.

"If Tony plays as consistently and as smart as he has the last four weeks, then we're going to have a chance to keep scoring points and getting lots of yards and holding onto the ball. And that combined with the way our defense is playing should make us pretty good.

"Tony welcomes that pressure. Regardless of all the personnel we're throwing on the field, I really think it revolves around him and the way he plays."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Cleveland Browns

Site: Cleveland Browns Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

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

Line: Ravens by 8 1/2

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