OWINGS MILLS – Bullies have a tendency to prey on the weak.
It’s a principle that traditionally holds as true in the NFL as it does in any schoolyard.
Hardly any football team provides evidence of that axiom as much as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, arguably the biggest surprise around the league this year.
The resurgent Buccaneers (7-3) are thriving on a last-place schedule, but have yet to topple a team with a winning record.
They’re feasting against teams with a combined record of 17-54.
However, they’ve been blown out by the more formidable opponents on their schedule: the Pittsburgh Steelers and the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints and lost narrowly to the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
Stinging from the criticism that they’re not a legitimate contender, the upstart Buccaneers would like nothing better than to issue a convincing rebuttal today at M&T Bank Stadium against one of the top teams in the NFL: the Baltimore Ravens.
“They’re definitely going to try and make a statement,” Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “They’re trying to go on the same run we are. We have every intention of being the first line of defense and stopping people that are trying to fly planes into our Super Bowl dreams.”
The Ravens have won seven consecutive games at home dating back to last season and 11 of their past 13 games at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Buccaneers’ three losses have been by an average margin of 18.6 points.
And Baltimore has averaged 32.8 points at home since Dec. 13, 2009, the second-most in the NFL during that span.
Where’s the Buccaneers’ signature victory?
"You play the people they put on your schedule, they line them up, and you go out there and you play,” Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris said. “There’s nobody in the NFL that’s an easy game. That’s all media talk. You ask anybody in the NFL: Have they ever played in an easy game? I guarantee they tell you no.
“There’s only one signature win, and this year that signature win is being played in Dallas. This is not a statement game. It’s just another game, and Baltimore is our next opponent. If we go around feeling like this is our statement game, shame on us.”
Of course, Dallas is the site of the Super Bowl.
Nowadays, the Ravens aren’t taking anybody lightly.
Not since they barely defeated the Buffalo Bills, allowed the Cleveland Browns to stay in the game against them and had trouble finishing off the Carolina Panthers until a pair of late interceptions for touchdowns made a 37-13 win more palatable.
“Doesn’t matter,” Suggs said when reminded that Tampa Bay hasn’t defeated a team with a winning record. “It’s the NFL. Every game is hard. You see how Cleveland came in and played us, Buffalo, Carolina.
“The only thing that matters is wins and losses and they have the same number of wins as we do. All wins are tough to come by.”
In terms of common opponents to Tampa Bay, the Ravens managed to defeat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, no less.
They lost to the Falcons on a last-minute touchdown pass from Matt Ryan at the Georgia Dome.
The Buccaneers are 4-1 on the road.
Yes, they lost to the Steelers, Saints and Falcons by 25, 25 and six points, respectively.
The fact remains that they’re winning.
After finishing last in the NFC South last season, things have changed this year.
“I think we’re looking at a good Tampa Bay team,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “They’ve been playing pretty good football. They’re coming into our house, and we’ve been playing well and we’ve got to defend our territory. I think all we’re worried about right now is getting a win against them.”
The Buccaneers are led by Josh Freeman, one of the top young quarterbacks in the game. His favorite target is impressive rookie wide receiver Mike Williams, whom the Ravens scouted heavily heading in the draft.
Plus, Freeman can zip spirals to tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Arrellious Benn.
Freeman has completed 61 percent of his throws for 2,099 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions for a 92.0 quarterback rating.
“He runs the whole offense, they have an offense that’s tailored to what he does well,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He runs the quicks, he runs the boots, he runs the drop-back stuff. He runs play-action.
“He’ll look for a receiver. If he’s not there, he’ll go to his next guy. If he’s not there, he’ll run and he’s done that effectively. He’s a big guy and he’s a very good athlete, and he throws pretty well.”
And the Buccaneers wisely picked up bruising running back LeGarrette Blount as an undrafted rookie.
Breaking numerous tackles, the 247-pound power back leads all NFL rookie running backs in yards per game and touchdown runs.
The Buccaneers have outscored opponents in the fourth quarter, 62-39, the only quarter they’ve been better than their opponents all season.
The youngest coach in the NFL, Morris brashly labeled his team as the best squad in the NFC earlier this year.
"I think it was instilling a belief in my team,” Morris said. "It was a mentality before it was ever reality, and if we don’t believe we’re the best, we’ve got really no chance at anybody else believing it. So, when we go out and we play, it’s more about us than anybody else. And somebody has to finish No. 1. Why not us?”
The Ravens haven’t lost at home since Nov. 22, 2009.
“We just try to be good at home,” Suggs said. “At home, we like fans to enjoy themselves and have a nice, entertaining ballgame.”
Although uncharacteristically vulnerable on defense at times, the Ravens are winning behind a strong offense led by Flacco.
He has thrown 15 touchdowns with only two interceptions in the past eight games.
And the Ravens are ranked 12th in total offense.
The Ravens play four of their final six games at home, beginning today.
The Ravens are tied with the Steelers for first place in the AFC North heading into next week’s showdown with the division crown probably at stake.
“We want to get some momentum going,” Harbaugh said. “Everything in this league is about December and January. You want to get yourself to December and January and be relevant and make it matter. This win is very important to set us up for next week. And you all know what’s at stake next week.”