Ravens sealing own playoff fate


AT THIS point, the Ravens don't deserve to go to the playoffs. Instead of looking like a serious contender, they just look like a team two games over .500. Real postseason teams go on a run at the end of the season, and strut into the playoffs.

The Ravens are limping.

They have no one to blame but themselves for being involved in a four-way tie for the last AFC wild-card spot. They didn't take care of business against Cleveland on the road, or Kansas City at home. Then came the unforgivable - they blew a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati at home on Dec. 5.

Real contenders show significant improvement from Day One, but the Ravens haven't. Their primary concern was to upgrade a passing attack to complement a strong running game and ferocious defense, but that hasn't happened. The Ravens still can't trust second-year quarterback Kyle Boller to throw downfield, and when he is accurate, receivers drop the ball as often as Jennifer Lopez drops husbands.

Is this team a contender or a pretender? Right now, it's a pretender because the Ravens are missing confidence. Head coach Brian Billick doesn't have great confidence in Boller, who has no cohesiveness with his receivers. The defense has no confidence in the offense at all.

Playoff teams find their grooves. Buffalo has found its niche on offense, with running back Willis McGahee teaming with quarterback Drew Bledsoe and receiver Eric Moulds. Jacksonville has seen running back Fred Taylor re-invent himself, quarterback Byron Leftwich take control of the offense and receiver Jimmy Smith make huge plays.

That seems to be the difference between the Bills, Ravens and Jaguars. All three have outstanding defenses, but two of the three, Buffalo and Jacksonville, now have quarterbacks who can make plays consistently, and quality No. 1 receivers. Buffalo has won seven of its past eight games, and Jacksonville went into frigid Lambeau Field on Sunday to knock off Green Bay.

That's tough stuff.

The Jaguars and Bills have earned playoff berths. They're capable of going on the road and defeating a New England, Pittsburgh or Indianapolis. The Ravens have lost three of their past four, two in similar fashion to the Patriots and Colts. The defense played well enough to win, especially in the first half of each of those games, but there wasn't enough offensive balance or scoring to pull an upset.

It's almost as if the Ravens' defensive players know the offense can't score against quality teams.

But the Ravens can change all of that Sunday when they travel to Pittsburgh. It's been nearly impossible to beat the Steelers at Heinz Field this season. The Patriots, Eagles and Jets have all tried to and failed, but the Ravens have a better chance than most teams.

The Ravens know the Steelers, and the Steelers know the Ravens. The Ravens have won in Pittsburgh before, and have won the past two games against the Steelers. This will be the type of game the Ravens like: a low-scoring dogfight. The Ravens have had no trouble stopping Steelers running back Jerome Bettis in the past, and they should be able to confuse rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and make some plays downfield against the Pittsburgh cornerbacks.

That's providing Boller can get the ball on target and the receivers can hold on to it.

The Ravens also need to do some soul searching. They have a chemistry problem, and a coach who has been lax in solving it and regaining control of his team.

There are three factions in the Ravens' locker room. There is the Ray Lewis group, the "high-rent-district players" like Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Deion Sanders and Ed Reed, who is near becoming unmanageable. And then there is the anti-Rays, a group of blue-collar, overachieving players. Finally, there is cornerback Chris McAlister, on an island all by himself.

In the past, the Ravens didn't care if Ray Lewis shared the spotlight, because he was special. But during the past two seasons, the gap in talent and production between the supporting cast and Lewis has narrowed. We're not talking the Crips and the Bloods here, but some players are tired of Ray Lewis and Reed being wired for all the national television games. They want mug time on ESPN like Sanders. They hear about Ray Lewis' close relationship with new owner Steve Bisciotti, and are concerned about Ray Lewis securing a contract extension before they sign a second, long-term contract.

In some cases, jealousy may be involved. But in others, fairness is the issue. They want every one treated the same. Is this a Cal Ripken situation down the road?

Billick is aware of the problem. That's part of the reason he called a team meeting following the Ravens' loss to Cincinnati. You've seen the sense of urgency on his face on the sideline during the past two weeks.

The new Billick is like the old Billick. He is animated and dropping more expletives. He's in players' faces. He's working and ripping officials, quite contrary to what we saw earlier in the season.

The Ravens have a chance to be born again Sunday, or at least put a new face on an ugly situation. They need a soul-bearing, bonding game, a tightly contested knuckle-buster on the road where it all comes together, and they win.

Then they might be on to something. Maybe something might click. They might start looking like a playoff team instead of one searching for confidence.

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