|December 21, 2006: Playoffs, Now What?|
Okay, the Ravens are AFC North champions and are in the playoffs after a two-year hiatus. It's Baltimore's fourth playoff appearance in the last seven seasons and the team has now won seven of its last eight games.
So why don't I feel giddy about this?
The 27-17 win over the Browns was good enough, but there were enough red flags in that game to say, "Hold on, wait a minute, let's not drink the purple Kool-Aid so fast."
This team still has trouble run blocking up front. Now, before you say, "Wait a minute, Jamal had 109 yards on 22 carries, what's this guy talking about?" -- one of those runs was for 52 yards with enough missed tackles that would have made the Redskins' defense proud.
The Ravens' pass rush is terrific; their secondary is so-so. A team-record 52 sacks, with Trevor Pryce having 12 of them, is nice, but when this secondary is allowing as much over the middle as it did in Sunday's game, it has to be a concern. Better teams won't turn the ball over by throwing the bone-headed interceptions that Derek Anderson did -- and he threw two beauties, one of which led to the Lewis 7-yard touchdown run. Anderson also flat-out missed open receivers on three separate occasions, two of which saw Samari Rolle beaten like a drum.
No, it's not all bad with this group. Not at 11-3. Not with a team that lost its starting quarterback in the first series, only to see Kyle Boller emerge and throw two touchdown passes.
"It's a great win," coach Brian Billick said. "That's step one. Every team, when they show up in training camp, their first goal is to make the playoffs. That's the first step, but only the first step. And it's significant when you can do it with your backup quarterback, do it with your backup corner and your backup nickel. The depth of this team we said from the get-go was going to be important and it showed up today."
Maybe the biggest part of this was Boller, who at times looked uncomfortable and made some of the same mistakes that had fans clamoring for change last year, but he stood in and delivered the football, and delivered it deep when he had to. Boller hit Demetrius Williams with a 77-yard touchdown pass that changed the momentum of the game in the Ravens' favor.
"I don't get very many reps," Boller said. "You've got to be ready. It's not always going to be pretty, but you've got to just keep fighting, calm yourself down, and go out there and execute."
All true, and the bottom line of getting to the playoffs was not lost on the players. Ray Lewis wanted everyone to know, whether you like the way the Ravens are playing or not, the bottom line is the bottom line.
"It doesn't get any better," Lewis said. "The beauty of where we are right now is we're in the dance right now. The dance is very simple. Anybody who gets into the dance has a chance to win the Super Bowl. I've been there before. I know what this feels like. I've also been there when we had to come home short, as well, so our focus is very simple. Our focus is for next week and then for Buffalo."
Billick will do his best this week to drive that point home. He knows his team didn't play well in stretches Sunday against the Browns.
The Ravens still have a chance at getting home-field advantage if they can win out and then get some things to fall their way. They have to hope San Diego falters in the last two weeks, either at Seattle or home against Arizona.
Baltimore has to go into Pittsburgh and beat a Steelers team which was demolished by the Ravens earlier this year, but, the Steelers are a different team now than they were then. Buffalo is playing good football now and has essentially turned its season around. Both of the Ravens' remaining opponents are 7-7, so neither of the final two two games will be a walk in the park.
"When you are winning, some of the things that go wrong on the field get overlooked. If it doesn't cost you, you don't have the pain of regret," linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "We know that some of the mistakes we did make, they will cost us later, so we want to correct that."
"We haven't peaked yet," Jamal Lewis said. "We haven't played our best football, but we're on our way."
Let's hope so. I, for one, would like to drink the Kool-Aid.
Issue 1.35: December 21, 2006