OWINGS MILLS — Inside the lobby of the Baltimore Ravens’ training complex, there’s an empty trophy case next to the fireplace positioned beneath the large painting of former majority owner Art Modell.
The empty spot is reserved for another Vince Lombardi trophy to be displayed adjacent to the Ravens’ lone NFL championship trophy that’s bathed in purple light.
The message is obvious: The Ravens are determined to win another Super Bowl and don’t shy away from the high expectations that go along with that goal.
And their championship ambitions are about to collide with the reality of facing the defending Super Bowl champions today at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens (9-4) square off with the reigning Saints (10-3), a formidable opponent that remains the gold standard in the league until the NFL crowns a new champ.
It’s a meaningful litmus test for where the Ravens stand among the league elite.
“Until, there’s a new champion, they’re still going to be the champs,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “So, you definitely want to see where you measure up against the team that won the world championship.”‘
The Saints are accustomed to such challenges.
They’ve been dealing with it ever since quarterback Drew Brees outdueled Peyton Manning and became a hero for the ages in New Orleans, the hurricane-ravaged NFL outpost that had suffered for decades with lost causes and bitter disappointments.
The Saints are aware that everyone is gunning for them, that they’re a giant ‘po boy of a target.
“I think they do, I think that’s just human nature,” Brees said. “I know that in the past when I’ve been on a team and the defending Super Bowl champ was coming to town, I think there’s probably a little bit extra motivation. Both us the Ravens are fighting for playoff spots, fighting within our division. There’s a lot at stake. So, you just want to play your best game.”
Playing the Saints offers the Ravens a living, breathing reminder of what they’re chasing.
“I would say it is a motivating factor,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You’re playing the world champs. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. It’s real. We know that they’re a great football team.”
And the Saints have an explosive offense and an aggressive, blitzing defense.
Brees has plenty of weapons at his disposal.
He can throw it to Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey, Lance Moore or Robert Meacham.
He can hand off to a stable of running backs that includes Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory.
“They’re the team everybody’s chasing,” running back Ray Rice said. “Everybody’s trying to take what they have. They are the defending champs, and you’ve got to give them that respect. I’ve got a lot of respect for them, how they play the game. If you look at them on tape, they play hard, they play fast. You see why they were the Super Bowl champs by the way they play the game.”
The Ravens allowed Texans quarterback Matt Schaub to throw for 393 yards last week.
However, Brees is even more dangerous with 28 touchdown passes and 4,000 passing yards.
“That offense is everywhere,” free safety Ed Reed said. “You have all kinds of threats, every different personnel group. You have to be on point, you have to be on your Ps and Qs at all times. With Drew Brees back there, he’s throwing the ball everywhere. You got to cover everybody. ..
“I’m sure the Saints will tell you there’s no Super Bowl champs right now. We’re in December of a whole new year right now. That Super Bowl is gone. They are still a great team and they’re the defending champs, but it’s a new season. We’re just trying to get to 10-4.”
Although the Ravens are primed to contend for a playoff berth and currently own the fifth seed in the AFC, they have become vulnerable lately because of their failure to finish teams off.
In the fourth quarter, they’ve squandered eight leads this season.
The Saints are prone to fast starts, outscoring opponents 95-23 in the first quarter.
Loaded with former Pro Bowl selections at the skill positions on offense and still solid on defense, albeit no longer an intimidating operation nowadays, the Ravens probably haven’t realized their potential this season.
“I definitely feel that, I definitely feel like we haven’t played our best yet,” Rice said. “That’s a scary, but great feeling. If you look at this team and say, ‘Wow, they haven’t played their best yet and they’re sitting here at 9-4,’ it’s scary because you don’t want it to come back and bite you in the behind.”