Game 14: Ravens dance to .500 tune

As middle linebacker Ray Lewis put on his cap and fastened his coat, his mind shot back to last year at this time when the Ravens were heading south fast. Some of the players had quit trying, and there were rumors about the coach getting fired at the end of the season.

And football wasn't a whole lot of fun."There were times when teams came in here and did all the dancing and celebrating," Lewis said. "They mocked us, they heckled us. But now it's turned around. We're the ones having all the fun. We're doing a lot of dancing."

The Ravens danced at the expense of the New Orleans Saints yesterday with a 31-8 win before an announced crowd of 67,597 at PSINet Stadium. The Ravens continued their turnaround this season by tying a franchise high with their third straight win and improving to 7-7, the most wins in a season since the franchise moved to Baltimore nearly four years ago.

On a day when the team likely got a financial infusion by adding minority investor Stephen J. Bisciotti, the Ravens improved their chances of possibly earning a playoff berth with a resounding win over one of the worst teams in the National Football League.

In the past, the Ravens have played to the level of their opponents. Yesterday, they had a 24-0 lead following a 47-yard touchdown reception by Qadry Ismail with 14: 14 left in the game, which prompted Ravens coach Brian Billick to pull out some of his first-stringers possibly too soon.

The Ravens held on, but not before the team was booed late in the fourth quarter by not trying to score more points.

"You're making progress with fans in the city when you can win 31-8 and they're still booing you because they want more," said Billick, laughing. "I mean that affectionately. I think we've raised the bar a little bit. We did some very, very good things. The bottom line is we are 7-7."

Ravens weak-side linebacker Jamie Sharper said: "The key is that we're growing as a team. We didn't play on their level. We played our kind of ballgame. I'm happy we have won more games than last year and every week we keep taking another step."

The p-word (playoffs) wasn't mentioned much in the Ravens' locker room except by Billick. The Saints (2-12) are horrible. They had 248 yards of offense including just 11 rushing. They dropped nine passes and missed numerous blocking assignments. They had three average Joe quarterbacks -- two named Billy Joe Tolliver and Billy Joe Hobert -- who combined for 21 completions on 49 attempts and four interceptions, one returned for a 24-yard touchdown by safety Corey Harris with 1: 49 left in the game.

After three of the interceptions, the Raven who picked off the ball tossed it in the air as a group of them fell backward on the field.

"We don't have a name for it," Lewis said. "We just said we were going to do it Saturday night."

Billick didn't seem to mind, just as long as the players didn't mention the p-word.

"I'll give out fines," said Billick, joking. "But I understand. I find myself peeking up at the scoreboard. I'm trying to keep myself from it. But I'll watch `Prime Time' tonight. Stuart Scott will get our game again. Boomer [Chris Berman] will be doing all the big games. Then it will be, `By the way, the Ravens played the Saints. ' "

The game, though, didn't start off well for the Ravens. The Ravens opened with possessions on the Saints' 48, 49 and their own 39 and couldn't manage a first down.

They finally capitalized on a Rod Woodson 31-yard interception return to the New Orleans 27 with a 36-yard field goal by Matt Stover that gave the Ravens a 3-0 lead with 3: 04 left in the first quarter. The first half was Tony Banks' career in microcosm.

He threw way too hard on short and intermediate passes as the Saints played a soft zone in the first period. But with 14: 12 left in the second quarter, Banks rolled to his right and threw back across the field laying out a perfect pass down the left sideline for running back Priest Holmes, who had gotten a step on linebacker Mark Fields for a 34-yard touchdown.

Then with 3: 04 left in the half, Banks led the Ravens on a 10-play, 82-yard drive that ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass on a slant route to receiver Justin Armour, who did an excellent job stretching out and keeping his feet in at the back of the end zone as the Ravens led 17-0 at the half.

"Early in the game, they played me like they did last year in St. Louis," said Banks, who completed 24 of 36 passes for 298 yards, but had three interceptions before sitting out much of the fourth quarter. "They played off the ball. I think the more and more plays we ran, they thought I'd make a mistake because that's my old M.O. They didn't want me to hurt them with the deep pass. But as the game wore on, they became more aggressive and we took advantage of them."

Banks had two interceptions in the third quarter that killed drives at the New Orleans 9 with 7: 56 left in the third quarter and another that halted a drive at the Saints' 46 with 1: 51 remaining. But he hit Ismail on a slant-in route at the 27 and after cutting behind a block from tight end Ryan Collins, Ismail turned on the speed to race the final 20 yards untouched.

Ismail (seven receptions for 115 yards) now has 1,003 receiving yards for the season.

"I'm really thrilled for Qadry to be over 1,000 yards. That's a benchmark. It takes him off the trash heap," said Billick.

"We were fortunate that the defense played as well as they did, which kept us in the game when we were struggling offensively," said Banks, who has thrown at least three touchdown passes in each of the past three games.

The Ravens' defense dominated the game except for a 20-yard touchdown pass from Tolliver to Keith Poole that finished a four-play, 81-yard drive with 10: 30 left in the game. After that, Billick was getting a little nervous with an ineffective offense that went three straight series without a first down.

But Harris gave the Ravens some breathing room and set the stage for next Sunday when they play host to the Cincinnati Bengals, who are just as hot as the Ravens.

"Yeah, I started second-guessing myself about pulling them a little early," said Billick.

Now it's time for the Bengals.

"A lot of us in the Baltimore locker room haven't been in this situation. I'm included in that," said Banks. "We're definitely having fun. The next week is even more important."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun