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Are Ravens ready

The Baltimore Sun

If the Ravens need more motivation than last season's playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, all they have to do is listen to the national buzz.

During the show First Take on ESPN last week, co-host Skip Bayless was raving about how the New England Patriots will run away with the AFC when someone argued that the Ravens could challenge them.

"Steve McNair vs. Tom Brady. ... Are you kidding me?" Bayless said with a laugh. "It's not even close."

The Ravens are far from being a punch line in the NFL, but it seems few national media consider them serious threats to the Patriots, Colts and San Diego Chargers.

Instead of forming a "Fab Four" in the AFC, the Ravens have simply become the drab fourth team, flying under the national radar because they play a less-than-enticing style of football and they flopped in prime-time games last season.

Sports Illustrated doesn't even have the Ravens repeating as AFC North champions. The magazine predicts the Cincinnati Bengals will win it.

NBC analysts Cris Collinsworth and Jerome Bettis agreed that the Ravens will finish second in the division, but they think it's the Pittsburgh Steelers who will capture the AFC North.

In fact, only one national publication (Lindy's) predicted the Ravens would reach the Super Bowl.

Brian Billick is more than happy to propagate the national perception, knowing this disrespect will only fire up his team.

Said the Ravens coach: "San Diego is the most talented team in the league, hands down. Indianapolis is the reigning Super Bowl champ. And New England has already made their reservation for [the Super Bowl in] Arizona. So I understand people's perspective. We have to earn the respect around the league that maybe - just maybe - we belong with that group."

The Patriots dominated the headlines this offseason when they signed linebacker Adalius Thomas and receiver Donte' Stallworth and then traded for receiver Randy Moss.

The Colts lost five starters from their Super Bowl championship team, but they still have Peyton Manning and one of the NFL's most dangerous offenses.

The Chargers changed coaches, hiring Norv Turner to replace Marty Schottenheimer, but return 11 Pro Bowl players.

So, have the Ravens really lost that much ground in the AFC race this year?

"When you ask someone who the top teams in the AFC are, they'll say the New England Patriots look like the best team, go right to Indianapolis and then go to San Diego. And you think, 'Where the hell is Baltimore?' " said John Madden, analyst for NBC's Sunday Night Football. "I think a lot of people are missing that. Whether they're going to be a Super Bowl team or not, that's too far away. But when you start rattling off the top teams in the AFC, I think you have to go here pretty quickly."

The Ravens essentially have the same team that went 13-3 last season and finished the regular season as the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

They looked to upgrade their running game by trading for Willis McGahee, and they brought back all but one starter on the NFL's top-ranked defense.

This has led to a smooth training camp and preseason in which the Ravens have conducted themselves in a confident and businesslike manner.

"This team is as mature across the board as I've had," said Billick, who is in his ninth season with the club. "There seems to be a lot of focus and a lot of determination about what we need to do this year."

Ray Lewis called this year's team the most talented in Ravens history - even better than the Super Bowl champions from the 2000 season - but the Pro Bowl linebacker said questions need to be answered before this year's squad can be included in that class.

Said Lewis: "The thing is, can we get the chemistry? Can we focus in and say, 'We are the most dominant team in football'? Sometimes when we sit back and look at all the talent, we say, 'Wow, are we really that good?' "

Less than prime

The Ravens really only have themselves to blame about being slighted nationally.

They are a solid football team but horrible self-promoters.

The Ravens were 0-3 in prime-time games last season, which can create doubts about the quality of a team.

"You can be 14-2 but if you have two bad games when everybody is watching, that's what they remember," receiver Derrick Mason said. "In this league, perception is reality. Is it unfair? Yeah."

But the Ravens weren't just bad. In fact, they probably had their three worst performances of the season in the national spotlight.

McNair threw three interceptions in a 13-3 loss in Denver. The defense was fooled on a flea flicker in a 13-7 loss in Cincinnati. And the Ravens committed four turnovers - including McNair's interception at the goal line - in a 15-6 playoff loss to Indianapolis.

That's why convincing the national audience that the Ravens are a Super Bowl contender could be a tough sell.

"It's unfortunate that we didn't play our best when we were on national TV," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "But if you're a sports fan and you analyze everything, you know we're a pretty good team. We're not mediocre in any way."

Losing style points

It's easy to see why the Patriots, Colts and Chargers are the sexy picks.

Tom Brady wins Super Bowls. Manning is the NFL's commercial darling. And LaDainian Tomlinson scores lots of touchdowns for fantasy football owners.

The Ravens?

They lead the NFL in time of possession. They force teams to punt. They win games but not the hearts of football fans seeking excitement.

"We're not flashy. We're holding people to 10 points and that's not attractive to the league unless you're an in-depth football player," Lewis said. "But you look at our defense, we have probably eight to 11 Pro Bowlers. We're sitting there accepting the challenge. Is everyone else OK looking past us? Because I can promise you that the people we play aren't looking past us."

The Ravens aren't about to change their ways anytime soon.

As much as the Ravens want to talk about the strides made on offense, this is still a defense-driven team. Last season, the Ravens' defense ranked first in the NFL in fewest yards allowed, fewest points allowed and red-zone efficiency.

The Ravens are more apt to hit another team in the mouth than to hit a big play.

"We're not going to throw the ball 50 times like the Colts," McNair said. "We're all about balance and ball control. If you're looking for a physical, powerhouse team, you're looking at the right team."

Stretch run

A large portion of the national media can think the Ravens have fallen from last season.

The Ravens can believe they are ready to make a Super Bowl run.

But whether the Ravens belong among the AFC elite likely will be settled in the second half of the season, when they play the Chargers, Patriots and Colts in consecutive weeks.

"The NFL is smart. It's not about football. It's about entertainment," defensive tackle Trevor Pryce said. "The most interesting part of the season will be that stretch where all four division champs play each other. It will cause a lot of debate. That's what the NFL wants and they're about to get it."

The Ravens are the only team that has to face the other division champions in such a grueling stretch. The Patriots play the Colts, Chargers and Ravens in different months; the Colts face the Patriots and Chargers back-to-back and the Ravens four weeks later; and the Chargers have the Patriots in September and the Colts and Ravens in November.

"If we can make it to the playoffs," Billick said, "we will have earned it."

The first step to earning some national respect comes in the season opener, when the Ravens play the Bengals on Monday Night Football.

"I think we're one of the better teams in the NFL," Mason said. "But you have to go out there and play because you're going against a lot of other teams that feel the same way that we do."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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