OWINGS MILLS — Since clinching an AFC North title is within the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ grasp provided they manufacture another victory Thursday night over the Cincinnati Bengals, delivering a convincing rebuttal to Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh isnâ€™t much of a priority.
It was Houshmandzadeh who vehemently insisted that he plays for the superior team despite the outcome Nov. 5 at M&T Bank Stadium when Baltimore took a 26-20 win over the defending division champions.
â€œWeâ€™re just a better team than they are,â€ Houshmandzadeh vented. â€œWe didnâ€™t win the game, and Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™ll get a laugh over that. But deep down, we know weâ€™re better than Baltimore and they know it. Weâ€™ve got better players than they do.â€
Not long ago, the Ravens (9-2) used to be the kings of trash talk. They filled up reporters’ notebooks with inflammatory declarations, particularly former tight end Shannon Sharpe. In the midst of a five-game winning streak, though, this team doesnâ€™t seem to be as interested in winning debates or unleashing verbal assaults.
â€œEverybody has got excuses, but everybody knows what they say about excuses,â€ Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs said of Houshmandzadeh. â€œI canâ€™t say it, though, because this is a family show. We know their team is a team that likes to talk and weâ€™re a team that likes to show up to the fight and do what we do. We arenâ€™t bothered by it. Of course, itâ€™s motivating.â€
There was even a large message emblazoning the bulletin board in the Ravensâ€™ locker room serving as a reminder of a deeds over words edict.
â€œNo need for talking,â€ it read, along with a notation about the developing prospects of becoming the 2006 division champs. â€œWe know what we have to do.â€ Of course, outspoken linebacker Bart Scott couldn’t resist getting in a few choice digs.
â€œT.J., whoâ€™s your mama?â€ Scott said. â€œIâ€™ll take the same scenario. He can be mad and say his team is the better team. Iâ€™ll take the victory. They are coming off a great year and were picked to do a lot of things and frustration is setting in a little bit. I donâ€™t mark it against him, but I believe differently.â€
When asked about Houshmandzadehâ€™s post-game rant, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, the former Ravens defensive coordinator and Finksburg resident, declined to back up his argument.
â€œI appreciate our guys, but that day we were not the better football team because they beat our tails,â€ Lewis said in a Tuesday conference call. â€œI appreciate T.J.â€™s comments, but I think heâ€™s wrong. The team that wins the game on that day is the better team.â€
The Ravens could become the second-fastest team to clinch a division title since the NFL went to an eight-division format in 2002. Only the Philadelphia Eagles, who won the NFC East on Nov. 28, 2004, would have accomplished the task in speedier fashion.
In 2000, Baltimore went on an 11-game winning streak en route to winning Super Bowl XXXV. However, that edition didnâ€™t secure a playoff berth until the 15th week of the regular season. The Ravensâ€™ two other playoff teams (2001 and 2003) didnâ€™t gain entry to the postseason until the final week.
â€œCan we put away the AFC title?â€ Ravens coach Brian Billick said jokingly. â€œI just want to beat Cincinnati. If that can happen for us, it would be great, but thereâ€™s so much beyond that. If thatâ€™s our fate and weâ€™re able to do that, then itâ€™s the next set of goals that you go on to.â€
With a long-held tradition of a celebrated, brash defense and a relatively silent offense, the Ravens are evolving into one of the more well-rounded teams in the league by averaging 27.8 points over the past five games since Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and assumed play-calling duties while the defense has allowed an average of 15.6 points.
â€œI think thereâ€™s a correlation there,â€ tight end Todd Heap said regarding Billick. â€œWe havenâ€™t lost with him as our offensive coordinator. Confidence is a huge factor in winning ball games. Thatâ€™s one thing that weâ€™ve been developing, and you have to trust in one another.â€
The Ravens are coming off a 27-0 shutout of the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers manufactured by a crisp offense and a bullying defense that generated nine sacks, including Scott’s exclamation point hit on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Defensively, the Ravens rank second overall behing the Chicago Bears by allowing 265 yards per contest and first in the league in turnover margin with 30 takeaways and 14 turnovers.
"We’ve shown that we’re a complete team," Scott said. "We’re not a defensive team. We’re just a tough team."
The Ravens are doing virtually everything better than they did in the recent past besides recapturing the art of trash-talking.
â€œWeâ€™re not doing any talking,â€ quarterback Steve McNair said. â€œWe let our physical style of play handle itself. We donâ€™t need to go out and say how good we are. We go out and prove that weâ€™re a great football team.â€
Responding in kind to Houshmandzadeh seems to be one of the last items on the Ravens’ ultra-focused agenda.
â€œPlaying good football and winning games, thatâ€™s our driving force,â€ wide receiver Derrick Mason said. â€œRegardless of what you say and how many times you say it, weâ€™re not going to listen to it. Our motivation is to win a championship. Weâ€™re not going to feed into what Cincinnati said.â€
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Join the GAMETIME crew, Ravens mascot Poe, Ravens cheerleaders and other surprises at Della Rose’s Avenue Tavern in White Marsh prior to the Ravens @ the Bengals on Thursday Nov. 30 at 6:30PM. There will be authentic autographed memorabilia given away and there is a free sign up for a Toyota raffle — the prize being a brand new 2007 Yaris!
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland
Photo provided by Sabina Moran