LIGHTS OUT

The Baltimore Sun

Pittsburgh -- A win over the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight would move the Ravens into first place in the AFC North.

But a victory on national television would have a ripple effect beyond the Ravens' standing in the division.

There's a national perception that the Ravens are not an underachieving team but simply a mediocre one.

Cris Collinsworth, an NFL analyst for NBC, called the Ravens "a fraud" after they lost at Buffalo.

A reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called the Ravens' defense "overrated" in a question-and-answer session with readers.

And ESPN.com joked that the Ravens' playbook has two pages: "One page has a 5-yard slant. The other has a draw."

Even the point spread reflects the growing skepticism about the Ravens, the NFL's biggest underdogs this week.

"What are we, 35-point underdogs?" Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said of the spread, which is actually nine. "Hopefully we can get off the bus without tripping."

The Ravens (4-3) can change the balance of power in the AFC North as well as make over their image tonight in prime time, the root of their mundane national reputation.

They have lost four straight times on national television, often in bumbling fashion:

In their first Monday night appearance last season, quarterback Steve McNair threw three interceptions in a 13-3 loss to the Broncos in Denver.

On a Thursday night game in late November, the defense was fooled on a flea flicker and the offense was shut out for the first 58 minutes in a 13-7 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.

In the playoffs, the Ravens committed four turnovers -- including McNair's interception at the goal line -- in a 15-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Then, opening this season on a Monday night, the Ravens turned over the ball six times in a 27-20 loss in Cincinnati.

Unlike the Steelers -- who haven't lost a home Monday night game since 1992 -- the Ravens' last prime-time win came in December 2005.

"We know what we're capable of," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It is an opportunity to play on a national stage and to show everybody how good this team is."

Surprisingly, the Ravens' problems on the national stage over the past two years have centered around McNair, who is known for his clutch play.

In his four nationally televised games with the Ravens, McNair has thrown one touchdown pass and six interceptions. He has averaged 192 passing yards and 5.5 yards per attempt for a 59.4 rating.

"We have to maintain the confidence that we have and not let the outside world bother us," McNair said. "In this room, we know we've got a good team. We just have to go out there and prove it [tonight]."

McNair hasn't struggled just on national television this season. Bothered by groin and back injuries, he has guided the Ravens to only three touchdowns in 15 quarters and none in his past 13 series.

Given three weeks to rest -- he didn't play in the two games before the bye -- McNair looks fresh and is throwing the ball well in practice, according to coaches and teammates.

"I don't mean to be the doctor here, but I think he's 100 percent healthy," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

Even with McNair returning, the Ravens might not be at full strength tonight as previously expected.

They'll regain left tackle Jonathan Ogden's ability to shut down defensive ends one-on-one, right tackle Adam Terry's athleticism on the other side and defensive tackle Trevor Pryce's powerful pass rush on the inside.

But tight end Todd Heap (hamstring) is questionable and the Ravens likely will be missing both starting cornerbacks. Samari Rolle didn't make the trip because of an undisclosed illness and Billick has said it is "very doubtful" Chris McAlister will play.

That means the Ravens might start Quinn Sypniewski at tight end and Corey Ivy and Derrick Martin at cornerback.

If the Ravens needed any more drama, the Steelers chose this game to honor members from their 75th anniversary all-time team at halftime. To the Ravens, that's the latest slap in the face.

"We look at it as we have been scheduled for their homecoming," Billick said.

Still, many Ravens prefer to be in this situation, with few outside of their locker room believing they have a chance of upsetting the Steelers.

"We're OK with taking that back seat [and] being the underdogs," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We've been fine with that for the last eight, nine, 10 years. I think Pittsburgh knows what's coming [tonight]."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Technical difficulties

A look at the Ravens' four-game losing streak on national television:

Broncos 13, Ravens 3

Date: Oct. 9, 2006, Monday night in Denver.

Key mistake: After marching the Ravens to the Denver 10 in the second quarter, Steve McNair attempted an alley-oop pass on third down, sending a high throw into the right corner of the end zone. But the underthrown pass intended for Clarence Moore was intercepted by Champ Bailey, keeping the score tied at 3 at halftime.

McNair's statistics: 20-for-34 for 165 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions

End result: Ravens' season-opening four-game winning streak ended. A national television audience was not impressed with the previously unbeaten Ravens.

Bengals 13, Ravens 7

Date: Nov. 30, 2006, Thursday night in Cincinnati.

Key mistake: The Bengals caught safety Ed Reed and cornerback Chris McAlister off guard with a flea flicker, with Carson Palmer connecting with an uncovered T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a 40-yard touchdown. That gave Cincinnati a 13-0 lead early in the third quarter.

McNair's statistics: 26-for-43 for 227 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions

End result: The Ravens could have clinched the AFC North title with a win. Instead, they had to wait 17 days to do so.

Colts 15, Ravens 6

Date: Jan. 13, 2007, divisional playoff game in Baltimore.

Key mistake: After marching downfield on the strong running of Jamal Lewis, the Ravens reached the Indianapolis 3-yard line and had a chance to tie or take the lead in the second quarter. But on third-and-goal, McNair was late on a throw to Todd Heap in the end zone and the pass was intercepted by Antoine Bethea.

McNair's statistics: 18-for-29 for 173 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions

End result: The second-seeded Ravens could have hosted the AFC championship game with a win. Instead a 13-3 season ended without a playoff victory.

Bengals 27, Ravens 20

Date: Sept. 10, 2007, Monday night in Cincinnati.

Key mistake: On the Ravens' third offense play of the third quarter, McNair's throwing arm was hit by end Robert Geathers (who beat rookie right tackle Marshal Yanda) and the fumble fell into the hands of linebacker Landon Johnson. He returned the ball 34 yards for a touchdown, extending Cincinnati's margin to 19-10.

McNair's statistics: 20-for-34 for 203 yards, no touchdowns and one interception

End result: After the Ravens talked all offseason about being among the NFL's elite, this mistake-filled loss set the tone for a disappointing start of the season.

JAMISON HENSLEY

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