Tailgaters keep up hope at the tail-end of season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A once-promising Ravens season teetered on the brink yesterday morning. Entry into the postseason depended on a seemingly impossible dream: a win for Baltimore and losses for three other NFL teams. What was a worried football fan to do?

In a word, tailgate.

Outdoor oases filled with beer, burgers and banter popped up again yesterday morning for the last time this season.

On the well-tended Ravens stadium parking lots and in hard-bitten industrial corners of South Baltimore, football aficionados spent time trashing their team's embattled offensive coordinator, pitying the Ravens' high-performing defense and looking with hope to next season.

"The season ended after the loss to Cincinnati," said Dean Shuron, 35, of Catonsville, taking long drags on his cigar.

In truth, the season didn't end until the Denver Broncos beat the Indianapolis Colts shortly before 7:30 p.m., clinching the last playoff spot in the NFL's American Conference despite the Ravens' 30-23 win over the Miami Dolphins.

Still, the mood was high hours before kickoff at M&T; Bank Stadium. No calls for the coach's head. No cries for a series of major trades. No clamoring for an overhaul next year.

"We just need a little tuneup," said Bob Smith, 34, of Forrest Hill.

His 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, added, "Yeah, just a few fixes here and there."

Everyone talked about the possibility that the stars would align - the Ravens would win and the Broncos, Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars would lose - but few expressed confidence the fantasy would come reality.

At Alluvion and Ridgely streets, "Ravens Haven" was voted the best tailgate party in the city, according to a large banner stripped across the loading dock at JW Boarman Co. Lithographic Services.

The voters? The tailgaters themselves, admitted Bruce Kafer, 48, of Bel Air.

'Here since '96

"We've been here since '96," said Kafer, who adjusted the sound levels on thrashing heavy-metal music blaring in Boarman's parking lot. "No better way to spend a day."

Down a couple of streets, Matt Kirby and Brent Guyton, friends since sixth grade in Columbia, kept their tailgate party at Wicomico and Bayard streets low-key.

"We love this spot," Guyton said, standing in the shadow of a giant scrap-metal yard behind him.

Then the news got worse. The sports talk radio station coming from Kirby's car announced that Ravens defensive star Ray Lewis would sit out the game.

Hours later, after the tailgaters packed up and moved inside the stadium, there was reason for hope.

Hopeful signs

The score stood at 20-7 in the Ravens' favor at halftime. By the third quarter the lead narrowed to 27-14. The Ravens found a way to pull it out, 30-23, by game's end shortly after 4 p.m.

For three hours, Ravens fans waited. First Buffalo lost, a welcome sign.

But Ron Pierro, 43, waited at home in Shrewsbury, Pa., for the other shoe to drop. Just before 7 p.m., with the Broncos up 30 to 14 over the Colts, he wasn't optimistic.

"It's looking interesting, but I still don't think we deserve to be in the playoffs," Pierro said by telephone after spending his morning in Ravens Haven, game time in his stadium seats and the post-game at home flipping back and forth between two games on television.

He was already thinking again about next year. "We've got to shore up the wide receiver corps," he said.

Many fans took the news of the Ravens' elimination from the playoffs in stride.

"It's all good," Kirby, 30, of Hampden, said. "I'm home with my new baby, Colette. I'm not really worried about the Ravens."

And then he let loose a little, criticizing other teams who needed to win their games for the Ravens to advance, but who decided to bench their starters because they were already going to the playoffs.

'Who won?'

Maceo Nesmith, 40, of Columbia had spent his tailgating hours in Lot J off Warner Street. But after he saw the Ravens win, he didn't wait in front of a television set to find out their fate.

"Who won?" he said when asked for his reaction to Denver's win against the Colts.

"Oh," he said. "Well, I was heading back home."

Then he started to explain in detail how the Ravens will be able to turn it all around next season.

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