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Billick passes on addressing woes of offense

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ravens coach Brian Billick deflected questions about the job security of offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, saying the team is focused on its slim playoff chances and not offseason decisions.

Sunday's 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers marked the Ravens' fourth defeat in five games, pushing them to the brink of elimination heading into their regular-season finale.

In addition to beating the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, the Ravens (8-7) need the Buffalo Bills to lose to Pittsburgh, the Denver Broncos to lose to the Indianapolis Colts and the Jacksonville Jaguars to either lose to or tie the Oakland Raiders to clinch the AFC's final playoff spot. A win by either Buffalo, Denver or Jacksonville would end the Ravens' season.

The Ravens' second-half free-fall has magnified the deficiencies of an offense that has essentially bottomed out. Their floundering attack ranks 31st in the 32-team NFL, which would be the worst finish in the franchise's nine-season history.

In their past four losses, the Ravens have scored three offensive touchdowns on 44 possessions. The Ravens' 22 offensive touchdowns this season are third-worst in the league, ahead of only the Washington Redskins and Chicago Bears.

When asked about Cavanaugh's status in the past, Billick had always defended him by either accepting the responsibility of the offense's struggles or explaining how a run-oriented team doesn't produce gaudy statistics. Yesterday, he chose not to comment specifically on Cavanaugh's situation or the troubles of the offense.

"These are all legitimate questions," Billick said. "They're just not going to be addressed now because we have a lot of work left to do. We have a prime opportunity to find our way into our primary objective of getting to the playoffs. For us to focus on any other issue, it is not fair to this team.

"You have to stay focused on the task at hand, which is beating Miami. Those questions will be answered at the appropriate time. This is not the appropriate time."

In five previous seasons under Billick and Cavanaugh, the Ravens' offense has finished in the bottom half of the NFL four times. The Ravens have never ended a season ranked higher than 14th.

What has doomed the offense this season has been its inability to run the ball as consistently as in recent years.

Running back Jamal Lewis gained only 26 yards on 14 carries, the seventh time in 11 starts this season he has failed to average more than 4 yards an attempt. The reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year criticized the play-calling after the game, saying the team should have run more between the tackles.

Lewis, though, wasn't the only one venting his frustrations.

Strong safety Ed Reed said "something's wrong" regarding the team Sunday, and linebacker Ray Lewis declined again yesterday to speak about the team.

Billick, whose strength during his six-year run as Ravens coach has been rallying his players together, refuted any suggestion of dissension among them.

"This is not a divided locker room," Billick said. "This is a locker room that has been together for a while and cares a great deal about one another."

General manager Ozzie Newsome acknowledged the frustrations of the players but said he wasn't concerned about the team's chemistry.

"Would this team be a lot closer team if we were 14-1? It probably would be," Newsome said. "But it is what it is. We're 8-7 and have lost four out of the last five. That's tough for those players and this organization to deal with."

Ravens first-year owner Steve Bisciotti did not return phone calls seeking comment on his thoughts of the team.

What has put the Ravens in a desperate situation is their failure to finish games. In their past four losses, they have been outscored 69-27 in the second half.

Now, their playoff fate depends on the Bills, Broncos and Jaguars all losing games they could be favored to win. Billick acknowledged that the Ravens will be doing some television-watching but reiterated it won't mean anything unless they first beat the Dolphins (4-11).

"We have not lived up to the promise that this team had, for any number of different reasons," Billick said. "But we still have the promise and potential to get into the playoffs, and that is what our focus is going to be. ... How devastating would it be for us not to play well enough to beat Miami, and those other things do happen? There's the motivation for the week."

The competition

An update on the three teams battling the Ravens for the final wild-card spot

Buffalo Bills

Coach Mike Mularkey knows the word and has heard it raised around town during the Bills' solid stretch run. Yet he refuses to even whisper it.

Playoffs. There, was that so hard?

"Ah, not quite yet," Mularkey said yesterday with a smile. "I just think there's still some work to do. And there's nothing cut and dried."

Call him superstitious, but Mularkey understands that the Bills didn't overcome an 0-4 start to climb back into contention by looking too far ahead. Buffalo (9-6) has won six straight and nine of 11.

Denver Broncos

Defensive tackle Trevor Pryce said he'll be back in the lineup for the season finale against the Colts after missing every game since the season opener.

"Yep," he said when asked if he would play.

Pryce had back surgery shortly after that game and has been on a long rehabilitation, trying to regain strength in his legs. He said he felt good in pass-rush drills last week, which made him think he could come back this week and play at about 75 percent effectiveness.

"It's not going to be something where I'm back to what I was before I hurt it," Pryce said.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have no one to blame but themselves for Sunday's 21-0 loss to the Texans.

"We just didn't show up," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcus Stroud said. "But maybe we can still slide into the playoffs."

Jacksonville had some excuses.

Running back Fred Taylor missed the game with a sprained left knee, ending his streak of consecutive starts at 46 games, and quarterback Byron Leftwich suffered a mild concussion in the first quarter.

The shutout loss was the Jaguars' first since they were blanked, 44-0, at Detroit on Dec. 17, 1995.

Loss of yardage

The Ravens are headed for their worst offensive performance in six seasons with Brian Billick as coach.

Year Yards rushing Yards passing Total yards

1999 16th (109.6) 25th (189) 24th (298.6)

2000 5th (137.4) 22nd (175.9) 16th (313.4)

2001 11th (113.1) 16th (207.1) 14th (320.3)

2002 16th (112.0) 27th (177.9) 24th (289.9)

2003 1st (167.1) 32nd (140.9) 21st (308.1)

2004 9th (124.9) 31st (144.7) 31st (269.5)

Ravens' hopes

According to the NFL's official playoff scenarios, the Ravens can clinch a playoff berth if:

They win at home vs. Miami;

and Buffalo loses at home to Pittsburgh;

and Denver loses at home to Indianapolis;

and Jacksonville loses or ties at Oakland.

Complete scenarios list, Page 4C

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