The Baltimore Sun

CINCINNATI --The Ravens have talked for eight months about redeeming themselves for last season's devastating playoff loss.

They have talked about how the addition of Willis McGahee will turn their offense into a dangerous one, and they have talked how their defense will remain among the elite despite losing Adalius Thomas.

Tonight, before a national television audience and a sold-out Paul Brown Stadium, the Ravens will line up against the Cincinnati Bengals and ...

"All the talking is done," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It's time to show what we're really about."

Tonight's opening act could be a telling one for a Ravens team that appears primed to make a strong Super Bowl run.

For the Ravens, who face this year's chief rival in the AFC North, the history of season openers is revealing.

Since coach Brian Billick took over the Ravens in 1999, they have won their first regular-season game three times, and advanced to the playoffs each of those seasons. But in the five seasons in which they lost the opener, they have reached the playoffs just once.

The Ravens know their first step is usually an important one.

"You want to make a statement," tight end Todd Heap said.

The Ravens are not alone when it comes to the importance of season openers.

Last season, nine of the 12 playoff teams won their first regular-season game, including the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. In 2005, playoff teams were 8-4 in their season openers.

In fact, Super Bowl champions have gone 34-6-1 in season openers.

"You can really discover how good you are in the season opener," said Ravens kicker Matt Stover, who understands from experience, having played in 16 openers.

If there is any doubt about what a season opener can do for a team, consider the Ravens' first game last season.

After finishing 6-10 in 2005, the Ravens went on the road and manhandled a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that had reached the playoffs the previous season.

That momentum from the opening drive - in which quarterback Steve McNair marched the offense 80 yards on 14 plays - carried the Ravens through a 13-3 season.

"Any time you can get out fast and perform the way we did last year against Tampa in Tampa, it sets the tone for the rest of your season," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "This year is no different -- going into Cincinnati, it's a Monday night, nationally televised game. If we can get out there and get started the way we did last year, then I think it [will] do the same as it did as far as setting the tempo."

In addition to establishing a tempo, the Ravens can redefine themselves on the national stage.

Last season, the Ravens went 0-3 on national television - losing on the road to the Denver Broncos and Bengals and flopping in the playoffs against the Colts.

In those three losses, the Ravens offense totaled 16 points and just one touchdown (a desperation 36-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mason late in the fourth quarter against the Bengals).

"I think a good reason why we're more underrated this year is the significance of those games," Heap said. "So, opening night, we're going to send a message one way or another."

There are messages that need to be sent by the Ravens' offense and defense.

The Ravens' biggest question mark involves McGahee and the running game. McGahee gained a career-low 990 yards for the Buffalo Bills in 2006 and didn't convince anyone in the preseason that he is ready to bounce back.

The season opener provides a prime opportunity for the Ravens offense to take control of a game considering the Bengals' weakness is on defense. They allowed 355.1 yards per game last season, third worst in the NFL.

If McGahee can get on track, the Ravens could have their most productive offense under Billick, considering the talent of McNair, Heap, Mason, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams.

"I think that ultimately, [the offense] could be in the top 5 at the end of the year," McNair said. "You look at all those weapons and you can't help but have success."

Coming off a season in which it ranked No. 1 in the NFL, the Ravens defense still has to prove it can overcome the loss of Thomas, a versatile playmaker who signed with the New England Patriots as a free agent.

The Ravens should be able to gauge their defensive prowess tonight against a Bengals offense that has one of the league's best quarterbacks (Carson Palmer) and deep threats (Chad Johnson).

"That offense is as good as it gets," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "It's going to be a good challenge, but it's going to be a huge challenge for them as well."

After speculating for months how strong the Ravens could be, they seem ready to prove it in what could be the most important season opener in team history.

"Pick any one of those factors - first game, on the road, Monday night, in the division - and any one of those is enough," Billick said. "I think everybody understands what [tonight] represents."

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