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As a team, the Ravens are carrying the right attitude heading into the playoffs. To a man itâ€™s â€œSuper Bowl or bust!â€ Itâ€™s as though the entire organization views the regular season that will conclude Sunday at The Vault against the Bills as a down payment. The final payment is due on February 4, 2007.
The season has been remarkable particularly when you consider that the 2005 season left the team in a mess, they were in tatters and nearly shattered.
Count me as among those who didnâ€™t think that the Ravens could compete for a Super Bowl during the 2006 season. I admit, I thought that serious re-tooling was needed and if properly managed, the Ravens could make a push for the coveted Lombardi Trophy in February of 2008.
Since that infamous public belt beating of Brian Billick the Ravens as an organization have pressed all of the right buttons. So much so that if I had a vote, Ozzie Newsome would be the runaway winner of NFL Executive of The Year.
Think about it and consider the additions to the squad that have made a significant impact. Starting with the free agents: Trevor Pryce, Corey Ivy, Gary Stills and Justin Bannan. Then there are the carefully selected rookies that have delivered such as Haloti Ngata, Dawan Landry, Demetrius Williams, Sam Koch and Chris Chester. Folks that is 20% of the teamâ€™s 45 man game day roster all with big plusses next to their names.
Then of course thereâ€™s Ray Lewisâ€™ Ying to his Yang — the calm in the chaos of the NFL — the difference between 11 schizophrenic road losses in a row and winners of 6 of 8 away from home, Steve McNair. Ozzie patiently waited out McNair. He bypassed expensive acquisitions like Drew Brees and Daunte Culpepper correctly recognizing that Steve McNair possessed the right blend of talent, experience, leadership and poise to not only improve the team on the field, but also to help bring a very much needed calming presence off it and into the locker room.
All for a fourth round pick!
Are you kidding me! Remember when the Ravens traded their 2004 fourth round pick for Kevin Johnson?
But all of this aside, the Achilles Heal of this refined squad would be the offensive line, right? We all thought it. We all talked about it. Some of us like myself tried to convince ourselves that through consistency in coaching, the presence of Steve McNair, maturity and continuity in personnel that the line would someday mesh.
But deep down inside, Iâ€™ve asked myself, â€œDo you really believe that?â€
I was never sure. How could you be? Nothing during the preseason suggested that they would eventually become the leagueâ€™s second best unit at protecting the passer. Remember that preseason game against the Vikings? Did visions of Dwight Freeney dance through your head like a bad nightmare or what?
But Ozzie stuck his neck out there and his faith in the offensive line personnel was validated. No one thought that McNair would remain upright and start all 15 games so far. Today, McNair looks stronger than he did in Week 1 against the Buccaneers.
Yes the Ravens have pushed all the right buttons so far, including Jim Fasselâ€™s dismissal. (By the way, has his market value plummeted or what?) But the organizationâ€™s primary trigger finger belongs to Ozzie and if the Ravens are all wearing new bling bling come February on their fingers, they can thank the maestro that made it all happen!
The Old Ray-Ray
Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make. Many wanted to ship off Ray Lewis. Ozzie wasn’t among them. Lewis might not be as dominant as he once was as a tackler or at blowing up running backs at, near or behind the line of scrimmage but his value to the team still approaches immeasurability. He is the de facto leader of the team again made possible by an unlikely offseason transformation that enabled him to win back his teammates. His leadership and experience will prove invaluable to the team as they go deeper into the post season.
If you watched the recent edition of Ravens Wired on MASN last night, Lewis was inspiring to the defense and he was supportive and complimentary of the offense. The embrace shared by Demetrius Williams and Ray Lewis embodies the oneness of the Ravens today and that is a dangerous development for the rest of the NFL.
Best Game to Come
Another warning signal to the NFL originating from Owings Mills is the shared belief among the Ravens that they have yet to play their best game. The team dismantled the defending Super Bowl Champions on Christmas Eve in their crib despite three turnovers and 12 penalties. McNairâ€™s passes look tighter and they are delivered with more velocity; Mark Clayton is emerging as a force and Williams as a deep threat; Jamal Lewis is running with purpose and determination; Haloti Ngata and Dawan Landry are hardly showing signs of tiring and surprising rising star Ovie Mughelli is contributing in new ways each week. Does anyone really want to play the Ravens at this point?
The Weak Link
The one missing ingredient for the Ravens lies in their return game or lack thereof. Cory Ross despite having fresh legs looks very sluggish and he really amounts to nothing more than a fair catch on punt returns. Since he took over as the return specialist for the injured B.J. Sams, he has averaged 2.4 yards on 10 returns. He is hardly a threat and his lack of explosiveness invites gunners to take shots at him knowing that if they miss he doesnâ€™t have high end acceleration to make them pay for the miss. Many believe that there is too much risk placing Mark Clayton in as a punt returner. But punt returns can be managed and he can eliminate the risk based upon how he reads the coverage. When the celebrated Cowboys of the 90â€™s put Deion Sanders back as a punt returner, he managed it properly without injury and certainly produced results. And losing Deion as a shut down corner was certainly more risky than losing a productive receiver. And by the way, we’re talking the playoffs here…
The 12th Man
Assuming the Ravens win on Sunday and advance as the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, the likely opponent for the game on January 13 or 14 will be the Colts or the Patriots depending upon the outcome of their respective games this weekend. In either case both teams rely heavily upon checks at the line of scrimmage. Take that as a personal challenge Baltimore. Make sure that those checks are nearly impossible at the LOS. Donâ€™t be surprised if Peyton Manning goes no huddle. Actually you should expect it and prepare accordingly. That means maintaining the decibel level throughout a Coltsâ€™ possession.
As for Brady, itâ€™s more likely that he will use a huddle but not out of the realm of possibility that he will go no huddle. Players will tell you that the best time to make noise is when the team is IN the huddle. You ask your team to lay it all out there for the second season. Be sure to ask the same of yourselves and your neighbors at The Vault. The 12th man can make a difference!