No need to be embarrassed. You're probably not the only one in Baltimore who just figured out that the Ravens are in the playoffs and everybody at work is going to be talking about them and, well, it's going to be a little uncomfortable at the water cooler if you don't develop a rudimentary understanding of the NFL in relatively short order.

Sure, you know that Johnny U. used to be a big deal around here and you've seen Brian Billick hanging around the quantum physics stacks at the library over at Johns Hopkins, but you wouldn't know a linebacker from the Wichita Lineman Glen Campbell used to sing about and you probably think the "Tuck Rule" is part of the NFL's dress code.


We're here to help. Here are a few Frequently Asked Questions, or as famous fictional police detective Joe Friday might have called them, "Just the FAQs, ma'am."

Since you brought it up, why is it called a football if it's only 11 inches long?


It's actually 11.25 inches long, so I guess you could round up, but the origin of the word football goes back several centuries and may originally have referred to a variety of balls used for games that were played on foot instead of on horseback. In the United States, it's a logical name since American football emerged in the first half of the 20th century as the only major team sport where the ball is kicked.

Why is the NFL so popular? I thought baseball was the national pastime?

Baseball still is called the national pastime, but only because it takes so much time to watch a game. Professional football long ago surpassed baseball as the more compelling television sport. It's also a much bigger gambling sport, which explains why your husband put his fist through the wall when the last-place Cleveland Browns lost to the last-place Houston Texans on Sunday.

Where did the Ravens come from? Didn't the Baltimore team used to be called the Colts?

Right you are, but I wouldn't bring that up around here. Officially, the Baltimore Colts never existed. That was just the name used by a local marching band that performed at halftime for the Canadian Football League team that used to play here.

You didn't answer my question. Where did the Ravens come from?

That's actually a tough one. Some biologists believe that the larger birds actually descended from prehistoric winged lizards that glided over the earth millions of years ago. I checked with prehistoric lizard Al Davis, but he doesn't remember.

Why are the Ravens so good after going 6-10 and missing the playoffs in 2005?


Some people believe that the difference is new quarterback Steve McNair, whose veteran leadership has had an impact on both sides of the ball. Some think it was the decision by Brian Billick to take over the offensive play calling early in the season. Flip a coin.

Why aren't the Ravens in the playoffs this weekend?

That's actually a good thing. The Ravens had one of the two best won-lost records in their conference, so they get to take the weekend off while the division champions with lesser records (the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts) have to play wild card teams in the first round.

Are the Ravens the best team in the NFL?

Some, including notoriously-hard-to-please Sun football columnist Mike Preston, have made that claim, and it may well be the case. But the playoffs are a long and winding road (lyrics by Lennon and McCartney) that may put them into a difficult situation when they travel to San Diego to face the Chargers in the AFC championship game.

Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself. Don't the Ravens have to win a home playoff game to get to that point?


No. It's a common misconception that you have to actually play the games before you decide who moves ahead in the postseason. The Ravens are on a tremendous roll right now and will automatically defeat whoever shows up at M&T; Bank Stadium next week. The only reason they will actually have the game is for the tailgate parties.

That brings up something that has mystified me for a long time. Who are these tailgaters and why would anyone throw parties for them? Isn't it bad enough that they're always following everybody too closely on the freeway?

Really, really good question. I don't know.

Every great team has an unsung hero. Who would that be on the Ravens?

I think it would be Matt Stover, a great kicker whom I don't believe anybody has ever sung about.

I've been hearing a lot about Brian Billick's contract situation. Will the Ravens give him an extension after such a fine season?


The Ravens keep all contract matters confidential, so it's hard to say. General manager Ozzie Newsome is so secretive, in fact, that he refuses to confirm or deny that Billick currently is employed by the team.

If the Ravens get to the Super Bowl, will I be able to get tickets?

Yes, though you'll probably have to mortgage your house, pull your kid out of college or become a head of state. There are very few tickets available to the public and the after-market price can reach $4,000 per ticket.

Why would anyone pay that much to watch a football game when you can see things much better on TV?

It's really impossible to put a price on the value of lording it over your friends that you went to the Super Bowl, though I find it almost as effective (and much cheaper) to just lie about it. In fact, for a couple hundred bucks, I'll be happy to tell everyone I saw you there.

If the Ravens make it to Miami, is there an NFC team that could prevent them from winning the Lombardi Trophy?


Probably not. The best team in the NFC is the Chicago Bears, who became the first team to reach the playoffs without carrying a quarterback on their roster. The NFC is contractually obligated to send a team to the Super Bowl, so somebody will show up, but the AFC team always wins.

If the Ravens win the Super Bowl, will there be a parade?

I think that's a safe bet. This town is so starved for a winner there might be a parade after the Ravens survive the bye week.