Weak division strengthens playoff chances

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ON SOME SUNDAYS, the Ravens are going to look like a playoff team. On other Sundays, they will have the appearance of a team struggling to survive.

Welcome to the NFL, which also could be called the AFL (Average Football League).

After a year of rebuilding, the Ravens have reached the point where they have just as much of a chance to participate in the postseason as any other team. The Ravens could develop into a pretty good team and get hot in late November or December.

If they don't, this could be another losing season.

But the odds are in the Ravens' favor because they compete in the AFC North, the worst division in the conference.

That's what 2003 is about for the Ravens. It's playoffs or nothing. It might be nothing if the Ravens were in the AFC West with Kansas City, San Diego, Seattle and Oakland, or in the AFC East with New England, Miami, the New York Jets and Buffalo.

But the AFC North is tailor-made for a team that is still one of the youngest in the league. The Ravens are two or three players away from being a serious Super Bowl contender, especially on the offensive side, which is devoid of veteran leadership.

The AFC North, however, allows the Ravens more time to rid themselves of the growing pains. Their claim of possibly being a playoff team is as legitimate as anybody else's.

"We're young, but we have a lot of experience," said coach Brian Billick. "But we're still lacking some leadership. As great as Ray Lewis is, different [position] players can take over a defense, whether it's Lawrence Taylor coming off the edge, or a dominant cornerback. Offensively, it has to be at the quarterback position, and we're working on that.

"Defensively, we have incredible talent. We fit better and better with every game. The next step for them is experience, when they can take a fact, and transcend it onto the field as far as recognition. This group is more athletic, faster than the defense we had in 2000. The only things they are lacking are experience and growing up together."

But other teams in the division have problems, too. Pittsburgh seemed to hit its peak two years ago. Cleveland is rebuilding its linebacking corps and has a new starting quarterback. Cincinnati has a new coach in Marvin Lewis and possibly a new attitude, but if the Bengals don't get off to a good start, the new Bengals might begin playing like the old Bengals.

There is no hands-down favorite to win the division, and that's fine with the Ravens.

Why?

Because this is a team that could play slightly above or below .500 ball. The Ravens have a lot of answers but also a lot of questions. Without doubt, they are better than last year's team, which started with 18 rookies or first-year players. The Ravens had low expectations, but still finished 7-9.

The Ravens had a remote chance of making the playoffs going into the last two weeks of the season, which set the tone for 2003. It's hard to predict how the Ravens will finish, but that's what makes this season so interesting.

In 2001, the Ravens were expected to make another Super Bowl run. In 2002, they were supposed to win four or five games. This season, the goal is the playoffs.

"You really have to find this season interesting, especially after last year," Billick said. "That was an unbelievable learning experience for me. Would I like to go through it again? No. But it was fun teaching the young guys and still coming out with as many wins as we did. Now, we have to move on to the next level."

Billick has challenged the Ravens to become a playoff team. It's a good move on his part because anything less wouldn't be inspiring. But there are a lot of keys: What is the identity of the offense? Will a go-to receiver emerge? Can the small defensive line hold up for the entire season? How fast will the starting quarterback develop?

There are a lot of questions, but a lot of other teams in the NFL have just as many.

The Ravens can solve a lot of their problems with defense. They are fast, athletic and interchangeable. More importantly, they seldom get knocked off their feet, similar to the defense that led the Ravens to the Super Bowl three years ago.

The Ravens have studs in almost each area on defense: Lewis at linebacker, safety Ed Reed in the secondary. But they don't have a big-body All-Pro on the defensive line.

"Finding that type of player, a nose guard, in a 3-4 defense, well, that's a rare breed of cat when you can find one," Billick said. "What we have at [defensive end], like most 3-4 teams, is going to be solid. We have impact players at the linebacker position, and that's what the 3-4 is about."

So the Ravens appear set. They'll stop the run with perhaps the best linebacking corps in the league, and they can bring pressure on the outside with linebackers Peter Boulware and Terrell Suggs, if Suggs ever gets into shape.

They have a stopper in the secondary in cornerback Chris McAlister and personalities that seem to have meshed.

But on the other side of the ball, there are big problems.

Running back Jamal Lewis reported in great shape and is eager to prove he is the best runner in the league. He has a good bodyguard in fullback Alan Ricard and a good left side of the offensive line anchored by tackle Jonathan Ogden.

But along with Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, that's about it, since there's nothing else the Ravens can count on entering the season. Veteran receivers Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson contributed little in the preseason. Fourth-year receiver Travis Taylor has to prove he can be consistent, as does second-year player Ron Johnson.

And then there is the quarterback, Billick's ninth in five years. Rookie Kyle Boller might be the answer in the future, but he is going to learn some tough lessons this season. Patience will be the key word.

But Billick will pull it together. That's one of his strengths. He did a good job last year teaching this team about the culture of the NFL, and this season he has to get it focused on an offensive identity.

But at least the Ravens play six games against the weak AFC North. That could get them into the playoffs. And if they're hot, it will be interesting to see how far they can go.

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