Rebound puts bounce in Ravens' step

One year removed from feeling the pain of an underachieving season, Ravens coach Brian Billick wants his players to think about what's to gain for living up to their potential.

"Once we crossed through that threshold and became a playoff team, there's only one reason to go to the playoffs and that's to get to the Super Bowl," Billick said at yesterday's news conference. "We've earned that right to think in those terms. Our focus is Buffalo, but we're at that point in the season where the Super Bowl is why you're in this thing."


Like their fan base, some of the Ravens admit the potential of a Super Bowl run has taken them by surprise.

But no one really should be surprised.


In the past five seasons, five teams have gone from losing double-digit games to capturing a top-two seed the next year.

With the Ravens on their way to accomplishing the same feat - rebounding from a 6-10 season to a possible No. 2 seed - the players have sensed a renewed hunger.

"I get the feeling in this locker room that we're not satisfied with just a first-round bye," tight end Todd Heap said. "We're not satisfied with anything less than going all the way. We've got a few guys who have been through that, but a lot of guys want to make our own name."

The Ravens entered this season with heightened expectations, although there were legitimate questions whether they could join the NFL's elite.

Did quarterback Steve McNair have anything left in his arm? Could linebacker Ray Lewis lead the defense again, or even finish a season healthy? And how would the Ravens respond to Billick on the hot seat?

"I think everyone is pleased we're better than we thought we were," fullback Ovie Mughelli said. "I don't think anyone could have predicted that we would jell this fast. But from Day One, we were 4-0 and we were coming back to beat teams."

The Ravens are now among the most dangerous teams in the NFL.

The Ravens defense has given up the NFL's fewest yards (264.8 yards per game) and points (12.9). Since Billick fired Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator and took over the play-calling, the Ravens' offense has jumped 11 spots (from 28th to 17th) in yards and 12 spots (22nd to 10th) in points.


Count Billick among those who have been caught off guard by the Ravens' rejuvenated success from last season.

"On paper, certainly it is dramatic," he said. "But having lived through it and knowing the individuals that were involved, I don't think it's as big of a jump because I had a lot of faith in that team last year."

In fact, Billick suggested that the Ravens have the third-best record in the NFL because they endured a 6-10 season, their worst in the Billick era. He said that last season's ordeal provided "lessons you can only learn from going through that."

"Some of the things that left us vulnerable last year probably have a direct bearing on the way we've handled them better this year," Billick said.

As a result of their improved focus, the Ravens find themselves in an enviable position.

In a crowded playoff race - 20 teams are alive going into the last weekend of the regular season, the most since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 - the Ravens control their fate to a degree. If they beat the Buffalo Bills, they are assured of a first-round bye for the first time in team history.


"It's so clear and clean cut for us right now. It's very easy to bring the focus at the task at hand," Billick said. "There's no question in my mind that the players understand this better than you, me or the fans about what the ramifications of this game are and what that bye would mean going into next week."

After having their last extended rest (nine days off after their loss in Cincinnati), the Ravens have gone on a three-game tear, beating Kansas City, Cleveland and Pittsburgh by an average of 14. 7 points.

Asked if the team has reached its peak, Billick said, "I hope not. I think this team really believes we've got our best football ahead of us, and they're excited about that."

Notes -- Billick said he doesn't know if Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden will be ready for Sunday. Ogden missed his first game this season with turf toe. ... The one negative from Sunday's win over Pittsburgh was the number of penalties, Billick said. The Ravens committed a season-high 12 for 89 yards. "You're not forgiving of it, but you have to step back a little bit analytically and say sometimes it's tough on the road and that will happen," he said.