In league full of so-so teams, Ravens truly special

The Baltimore Sun

As the Ravens relentlessly slogged their way yesterday toward their franchise-record 13th win of the 2006 season - more than all but two teams in the NFL - against the Buffalo Bills, the rest of the league kept producing more evidence of why that is such a remarkable feat.

"This is a magical team," Terrell Suggs said as he headed out of the victorious locker room at M&T; Bank Stadium after the most dominant 19-7 win you're likely to see. "When you get a team like that, you've got to embrace it. You don't know when you're going to get this 13-3 season again."

In the lull before the Ravens get ready for their divisional playoff opponent, this is as good a time as any to recognize that in a league defined lately by mediocrity disguised as parity, winning 13 games and running away with your division is fairly spectacular.

The Ravens do look vulnerable plenty of times every week, including some anxious moments against the Bills. But in reality, this game was never really close, never really a threat to turn the other way, even when the Bills' Lee Evans sprinted past Samari Rolle for a third-quarter touchdown catch that closed the gap to 9-7.

But the rest of the NFL reeks of vulnerability, right up to the one team ahead of the Ravens in the AFC, the San Diego Chargers, who took their time shaking the feeble Arizona Cardinals at home in their finale at the same time the Ravens were playing.

No one can really say what teams are true title threats anymore, unless you give in and give that label to them all.

The Ravens can slip up and lose to anybody in the AFC field, and that's not just a theoretical, any-given-Sunday observation.

Then again, based on what the Ravens have done lately, the odds of that happening are slim.

All things considered, the Ravens never gave the Bills much hope. It was cruel what they did to the Bills offense, other than on that Evans touchdown (and Rolle redeemed himself with his fourth-quarter end-zone pick and return). Willis McGahee, with 23 yards rushing on 11 tries, was reduced to intensely self-centered buck-passing afterward: "I did what I had to, to go out and perform. I did my part."

Most of the game, quarterback J.P. Losman looked lost, man (sure, no one's ever trotted that pun out before), never more so than on the interception Chris McAlister ran back for a touchdown. The Ravens might have relied on defense and Matt Stover for points, but the Bills didn't even have that much to lean on.

The Ravens defense made the Bills - a team in the hunt until last week - look bad. Just as they made another late-season contender, the Pittsburgh Steelers, look bad twice, including a week ago in Heinz Field. And as they made the Kansas City Chiefs, who slipped into the playoffs at the 11th hour, look bad three weeks ago, in K.C., yet.

The Ravens have won nine of 11, and have won when they had to and, it seems, when they've wanted to. All around them yesterday, teams gagged like crazy, teams that shouldn't have even been in those circumstances. Like the Denver Broncos, who seemed like the class of the AFC when they were smacking around the Ravens back in October. Yesterday, some 45 minutes after the final gun in Baltimore, down the Broncos went at home to the San Francisco 49ers, eliminating them.

That was after the Cincinnati Bengals completed their meltdown at home against the Steelers to kill their chances. Weren't some calling the Bengals the team to watch after beating the Ravens at home on the final day of November?

Fifteen teams finished with seven, eight or nine wins this season - right in the NFL's mushy middle - and four of them made the playoffs. Four others lost yesterday to end their postseason chances.

The Ravens long ago moved out of that neighborhood, though.

They started separating themselves from the AFC North and most of the conference and league in mid-October. Now, they really are in a distinct group. They're not sleepers. They're not lying in the weeds (although they really like to portray themselves as such). They're not the hunters, but the hunted.

Teams have to figure out how to do what the Ravens are doing, simple as it seems. "The game is wide open for anybody. Whoever can step up and play good, sound football, don't turn the ball over, they can win it," Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said. "The difference between 6-10 and 13 wins is a couple of plays."

The Ravens have mastered the difference. Few others have. Most really haven't mastered anything, or their strengths are dangerously offset by their weaknesses (not to mention any specific teams, like the Colts or Bears).

That might be enough, maybe more than enough.

Problem is, if it's not enough, that mushy middle is too close for comfort. The Ravens seem to be well aware of this. They are in no mood to let go of the mind-set that got them this far. They know 13-3 is special and has to result in something more special starting now.

Ray Lewis said it as well as it could be said. "I went the rough way to win that first Super Bowl," he said with a grin. "So to come back and be in the playoffs the way we are now, to win it this way, this is probably the greatest blessing ever."

Continuing to win, even this way, would be even greater.

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