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It's Day One for a young, hopeful team


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Nineteen months after hoisting the Super Bowl trophy, it's time to pick up the pieces.

Having seen their championship team leveled by the salary-cap wrecking ball, the Ravens kick off the season and their monumental rebuilding project today against the Carolina Panthers, a team that set an NFL record for bottoming out.

For the Ravens, this new era starts with different faces and different expectations.

It's the first chance for 12 new starters to form an identity. It's the best chance for the remaining 10 Super Bowl starters to lay down a new foundation.

The Ravens march into Ericsson Stadium with a sense of urgency, knowing the consequences of falling to a Carolina team that hasn't won a regular-season game in 364 days.

"This is a game that we need to win if we want to consider ourselves in the running for anything this year," left tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "You don't want to put that much pressure on the first game of the year, but if you win the first game of the year, that's a huge step. We need to do that."

Most of the Ravens believe that first step will turn into a cakewalk over the Panthers, the first NFL team to lose its last 15 games in a season.

They joke about Carolina's 36-year-old quarterback, Rodney Peete, being over the hill. They roll their eyes when watching film of Carolina running back Lamar Smith. And they don't think the Panthers can do anything to stop running back Jamal Lewis.

"There's nothing changed about our team," inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Yeah, we lost some guys, but we're always going to carry the attitude and the swagger."

Lewis is trying to continue the tradition of the defense setting the tone. Despite the change to the 3-4 scheme and six defenders starting their first NFL game, the Ravens intend on holding their season-opening opponent without a touchdown for a third straight year, and they don't feel Peete will be able to break that streak.

The Panthers abruptly named Peete their starter just six days before the season opener. Peete hasn't thrown a pass in a regular-season game since 1999 and hasn't started a season opener since President Clinton's first year in office (1993).

"I don't think I have ever faced Rodney Peete," Lewis said. "I was probably too young when Rodney Peete was playing. Rodney Peete, in my opinion, is on the downside of things."

That line of thinking extends to Smith. In last year's playoff win at Miami, the Ravens limited Smith to 6 yards on six carries.

"Lamar knows he can't run on us," Lewis said. "If they figure they want to try it, try it."

While they feel Smith will be a non-factor, the Ravens have made no secret they intend to run on the Panthers. The Ravens want to capitalize on the return of Jamal Lewis, who will be playing his first full game since Super Bowl XXXV.

Because Lewis is a year removed from knee surgery, the team plans to give him no more than 20 carries, even though the winning formula calls for a little more. When Lewis has carried the ball more than 20 times, the Ravens are 11-0.

Running on Carolina has been a popular game plan. The Panthers were last in the NFL in run defense last season and have brought back six starters from that group.

"I think we can run on them," Jamal Lewis said. "It's going to be a good starter for us to get a feel for our offense. We can go in there and dominate."

That confidence on offense didn't surface during a touchdown-less preseason by the starters.

The first-team offense's production in 23 drives was three field goals. And the Ravens are all too familiar with how lingering touchdown droughts can affect an offense's psyche.

"We want to get out there and score on the first drive," right tackle Edwin Mulitalo said. "If we can do that, it would take a lot off our shoulders."

How these Ravens handle adversity will be one of the biggest keys of the season.

They can no longer lean on the wisdom of Shannon Sharpe, Rod Woodson, Qadry Ismail and Jamie Sharper. The advice must come from Ray Lewis, Chris Redman, Peter Boulware and Travis Taylor.

But while the Ravens are young, they are far from naive.

"This game is the real deal in terms of recognizing and looking straight into the face of what we're about this year," coach Brian Billick said. "We are the youngest team in the history of the league battling to get better with every week."

Ravens today

Opponent:Carolina Panthers in season opener for both teams

Site:Ericsson Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.

Time: 1 p.m.

TV/Radio:Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line:Ravens by 2

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