The Baltimore Sun

For the first time in team history, the Ravens' defense is carrying the No. 1 ranking at the end of the regular season and not simply carrying the team.

With coach Brian Billick calling the plays and quarterback Steve McNair running the show, the offense has redefined itself in the Ravens' dramatic season.

No longer is this offense content to sit in the passenger seat for another championship ride. In fact, the Ravens have been driving down the field unlike any other offense in the Billick era.

In the final 10 weeks of the regular season - the time when Billick assumed control of his struggling attack - the Ravens have been the NFL's 10th-best offense, a far cry from the years of ranking at the bottom of the league.

"We realize that in the past, the defense was frustrated with the offense. We were just as frustrated offensively," tight end Todd Heap said. "To put that all behind us and really grow, we have been the definition of a team coming together."

The catalyst of the turnaround of this offense - one that had ranked 21st or worse in four straight seasons - has been Billick. Since he surprisingly fired Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator Oct. 17, there has been a major spike in nearly every offensive category.

In the past 10 games under Billick, the Ravens have averaged six more points (24.3), 12 more rushing yards (107.1) and 59 more passing yards per game (237.1) than they did with Fassel.

As a result, the Ravens have gone from the 28th-ranked offense to No. 17, a tremendous jump that Billick refuses to take credit for.

"Just about anything we're doing well, at the heart of it, if you want to come back to No. 9 [McNair], that would be a good supposition on your part," Billick said.

Before the Ravens acquired McNair, points were usually scarce. Now, the team has been scoring in a variety of ways.

There are times when the Ravens have proved to be methodical, putting together 18 scoring drives of 10 or more plays. But the Ravens can be explosive as well, throwing eight touchdown passes of 25 or more yards (half of which came in December).

The evolution of the Ravens' offense, especially in the passing game, has come in the past 20 months.

The Ravens first added receiver Derrick Mason as a free agent in March 2005 and then drafted receiver Mark Clayton in the first round that year. Last offseason, they drafted promising receiver Demetrius Williams in the fourth round before trading a fourth-round pick to the Tennessee Titans for McNair.

That's the main reason the Ravens have become the NFL's 11th-best passing team, the highest passing ranking ever under Billick.

"I think the pieces we've added the last two years to this offense, now we're capable of winning ballgames," Mason said. "We don't have to solely rely on the defense to shut people down."

The offense proved that point at midseason, when the Ravens won three straight games despite giving up 20 points each time. Taking charge at pivotal moments has become a trademark of the offense this season.

In Billick's first game running the offense, the Ravens seized control early by reaching the end zone in New Orleans on three of their first five drives.

Two weeks later in Tennessee, McNair completed the biggest comeback in team history (19 points down) by throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to Mason with 3:35 left in the game.

Then, in a critical December road game in Kansas City, the offense broke open a close contest when McNair hit Clayton for an 87-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

"We have confidence in ourselves that if there is a play that needs to be made, we can make it," McNair said. "We have shown it in the past. It's good to have an offense that can bear down and make their minds up to get it done when you have a defense like ours."

Despite the solid run of success, the offense knows it will have to produce in the postseason to score some attention in the league.

"Teams are still always looking at our defense," center Mike Flynn said. "But if we can sneak up on some people and score some points, maybe we'll get a Super Bowl out of it."


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