Team can't say bye to questions

The Baltimore Sun

Limping into the bye week with a 4-3 record, coach Brian Billick acknowledged yesterday that the Ravens have left themselves "vulnerable."

But he expressed confidence the Ravens can still make a playoff run and wants his players to focus on what awaits them when they return - a Monday Night Football game at Pittsburgh (4-2), where first place in the AFC North will be on the line.

"All you can ever ask in this game is: Can I play a game that matters in November and December? Otherwise, you're just being greedy," Billick said. "Am I satisfied with 4-3? No. We earned the 4-3, both good and bad. Can we be optimistic about our future about who's coming back to us? Yeah."

The Ravens expect all their injured starters to return after the bye, and they'll need to be at full strength for a challenging schedule that includes some of the NFL's best teams. They play the Steelers twice and face a formidable three-game stretch against the San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.

Despite the Ravens' sloppy 19-14 loss at Buffalo on Sunday and the grueling coming schedule, Billick said he never thought about practicing during the bye week. He has given his players off until Monday.

"Right now, we need desperately more than anything to get some R and R," Billick said. "To bring them back and ask them in the middle of the week without an imminent opponent, we wouldn't have accomplished enough to offset the fact that we would physically be pressing them beyond what they need to. They need the rest, and I think we're going about it the right way."

Here are four questions that will linger over the Ravens during the bye week:

Will the offense improve?

At least there's hope. The Ravens expect all their injured starters on offense to return after the bye. This season, five starters (tackle Jonathan Ogden, quarterback Steve McNair, tight end Todd Heap, tackle Adam Terry and center Mike Flynn) have missed a total of 13 games.

That's part of the explanation why the Ravens have plummeted from No. 8 to No. 17 in total offense the past three games and rank 24th in scoring (17.7 points).

The key is getting McNair healthy and back to his form from last season, because his play often dictates the Ravens' success. In Ravens wins the past two seasons, McNair has thrown 16 touchdown passes and eight interceptions for a quarterback rating of 89.7. In Ravens losses, he has two touchdown passes and six interceptions for a rating of 72.5.

"There is nothing to lead me to believe that he won't be as healthy and as fresh as when we started the season, which is kind of unique," Billick said.

Is the defense as good as last season?

The Ravens' defense ranks second in the NFL, but it might need an asterisk. Since the season opener, the Ravens haven't faced a full game against a quarterback who began the season as the starter.

Catching a break every week, the Ravens have lined up against Kellen Clemens, Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, Trent Dilfer, Gus Frerotte and Trent Edwards. The focus hasn't been there at times because the Ravens have been fooled by gimmicks, whether it's a no-huddle offense or a change in cadence to draw them offside.

The final nine games of the season will be the true test for this defense, which plays three of the top 10 rated quarterbacks in the NFL (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger).

What's the most frustrating part of the season?

The injuries have taken a toll on the Ravens, but it isn't surprising considering the age of the team. The self-inflicted blows - namely Billick's play-calling - have been more puzzling.

It started in the opener at Cincinnati, where Billick called for a pass on third-and-one with 9:43 remaining in the game and a one-point lead. Then, with leads against the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals, the Ravens threw the ball on 12 of 22 plays and barely escaped with wins.

One of the most questioned play calls came Sunday, when the Ravens faced second-and-one from the Buffalo 49-yard line with 1:59 left in the game. Instead of calling a running play to try to pick up the first down, Billick decided to throw three straight times, all of which resulted in incompletions. The Ravens' offense never got the ball back.

"With the clock where it was and the yardage we had to go [for a touchdown] and anticipating what [defense] they were in, we were trying to move the ball down the field," Billick said. "If I had to do it again, yeah, I probably should have run on the fourth-and-one."

Will the Ravens make the playoffs?

The odds are certainly against it. Because it usually takes a 10-6 record to make the playoffs in the AFC, the Ravens need to win at least six of their last nine games with what might be the toughest remaining schedule in the league.

Other than the Miami Dolphins and Chargers, the rest of the Ravens' opponents are either leading a division (Pittsburgh, New England, Indianapolis, Seattle Seahawks) or have already beaten the Ravens this season (the Bengals and Cleveland Browns).

The Ravens' confidence comes from having gone 9-1 after the bye in 2006 after a lackluster start to the season.

"We're in the same situation we were last year, going into the bye week, having some questions," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We just got to figure out what's wrong. We have the talent. The coaching staff is great. They'll figure it out. We'll come off the bye week refocused and ready to go."

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