Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Looking at Things From a Baltimore Perspective

Apparently the Ravens have all but pronounced themselves division champs, and they are beginning to consider the possibility of going to the Super Bowl.

The Ravens, more than any other Steelers rival, are perfectly hatable.

In this article by the Baltimore Sun's Jamison Hensley the author considers the reasons why the Ravens may secure a high seed for the playoffs, and also considers factors that are working against them as well.

"With the Ravens already allowed to mail out playoff ticket invoices to their fans, it seems like a formality before they clinch a fourth trip to the postseason and a second AFC North title.

The next step is uncharted territory for the Ravens.

A team that has never earned a playoff seed higher than No. 4, the Ravens are vying for the top record in the conference and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. With a franchise-best 8-2 record, the Ravens have moved within one game of the Indianapolis Colts (9-1).

Ravens coach Brian Billick doesn't mind his players targeting the No. 1 seed, though he stressed that the focus must always remain on the immediate goals and not future ones.

'We've put ourselves in position where there's potential for that, and that's exciting. But we haven't done anything yet,' Billick said a day after the Ravens' 24-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons. 'Regardless of how we play, it will take until the last game of the season for the playoff picture to be set. So, that's a long, long way off for us.'

After a two-year layoff from the playoffs, the Ravens couldn't ask for a better situation at this point.

They have a daunting three-game lead over the Cincinnati Bengals with just six weeks remaining. If the regular season ended today, the Ravens would be the AFC's second seed (they own the tiebreaker over the San Diego Chargers because of the Ravens' Oct. 1 win), which would give them a bye as well as a proven route to the Super Bowl.

In the past five seasons, eight of the 10 teams to make the Super Bowl were either the top or No. 2 seed in their conferences.

'They're very cognizant,' Billick said. 'I don't mind them thinking, "What would it be like to have home-field advantage? What would it be like to have a bye?" But not to the point where you're looking ahead.'

Why the Ravens will earn No. 1 seed
1. This is not a defense-driven team anymore. The Ravens have one of their most well-rounded teams in years, with offense and special teams making weekly impacts.

Special teams have been a major factor in the past two wins, from the blocked field-goal attempt in Tennessee to three long returns by B.J. Sams against Atlanta. Meanwhile, the Ravens' offense has scored 24 or more points in four straight victories for the first time since November 2000, their Super Bowl season.

'We're a football team, and that's the great thing,' defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. 'Some weeks the defense has helped us out probably more than the offense, and then other times the offense has had to do it. And then our special teams had their turn [Sunday]. It's great to be on a team that does have each other's back like this.'

2. The Ravens haven't peaked yet. They have won four straight games despite not putting together a complete performance. They beat the New Orleans Saints and Bengals with strong starts before fading late. Then they defeated the Titans and Falcons with second-half comebacks after struggling early.

As a result, there is no sense of complacency in the locker room. "Offensively, in particular, the guys get a sense that there is more out there for us," Billick said.

3. There's better focus. The Ravens acknowledge that off-the-field distractions have hurt them the previous two seasons. But this year, the Ravens have only two starters - linebacker Adalius Thomas and running back Jamal Lewis - who likely will become free agents at the end of the season. That means the players are more focused on team goals rather than personal ones.

'We had an inordinately large number of guys that were in that situation [last year], so that vested self-interest, particularly in a tough season, is kind of hard to hold off,' Billick said. 'We don't have near as many guys this year in that same flux. So, that's an advantage right now in terms of keeping that tight 'We're-in-this-together' mentality.'

Why the Ravens won't earn No. 1 seed
1. The Colts might not lose again. The pressure of a perfect season is now removed for the Colts, who could easily win out the rest of the way. The biggest challenge in their stretch run is at Jacksonville.

Indianapolis' remaining schedule - their opponents are 26-34 with the Jaguars' win last night - is slightly easier than the Ravens'. For instance, next up for the Colts: the Donovan McNabb-less Eagles.

2. Age could be a factor for Ravens. The average age for the starters is 29, including seven over 30. The Ravens began to look tired this season before their bye, which could be a bad sign during the tail end of the schedule.

But Billick is meticulous when it comes to taking care of his team. During November and December, the players are given two days off after a win and rarely hit during practice, keeping them fresh late in the season.

'The physical and mental state of your team is always a concern,' Billick said.

3. The Ravens hit their most grueling stretch of the season. The Ravens face their two big division rivals - the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Bengals - in the next nine days and then play at Kansas City, which is 4-1 at home. The Ravens likely would be content to come out of this three-game grind with two wins.

Said Billick: 'Any two games in 10 days is a lot, but the fact that they are division games - and what they represent - are huge'
."

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