Wednesday, November 19, 2008

History Repeating Itself? Ravens Hope Not

The Baltimore Ravens were flying high, having won four in a row and three straight road games, heading into last Sunday’s battle against the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. The confident 6-3 Ravens had visions of an upset on their minds.

What followed was a humbling 30-10 defeat in which the Ravens were brutalized by the same style of play that they have proudly used against others over much of the past decade. The Ravens’ intimidating defense surrendered 207 yards on the ground, their highest total allowed since 1997.

As the Ravens pick up the pieces and prepare for Sunday’s game with the Philadelphia Eagles, one has to wonder how a team for which few had high expectations entering the season will respond. After taking such a strong hit to their pride at Giants Stadium, will the Ravens wilt down the stretch with a difficult schedule still to come? Or, will they show the same resiliency they did bouncing back from a 41-3 defeat to the Indianapolis Colts in early October to start a four-game winning streak?

The Ravens’ veteran leaders hope to avoid a conclusion similar to what the team experienced only four years ago.

Much like the current team, the 2004 Ravens were gaining more and more confidence with a 7-3 record in late November, heading into New England to take on the Super Bowl champion Patriots. The defending AFC North champion Ravens were determined to prove they belonged in the elite company of the Patriots. A win would put them in prime position for a playoff spot.

Second-year quarterback Kyle Boller was showing improvement after putting up two-straight 200-yard performances in wins against the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys. The Ravens’ offense was finding its stride going into New England despite injuries to tight end Todd Heap and running back Jamal Lewis.

After playing the Patriots to a 3-3 tie at halftime, the Ravens were demolished in the second half and lost 24-3. Patriots running back Corey Dillon ran all over the Ravens’ defense on his way to 123 rushing yards. Boller and the offense managed only 124 total yards against a stingy Patriots defense.

Though a win was not expected, the effect of the humbling loss was huge. The Cincinnati Bengals came to Baltimore the following week with a 5-6 record and little hope for the playoffs. The situation was perfect for the Ravens to get their season back on track with a victory.

The game went according to plan for three quarters with the Ravens building a seemingly insurmountable 20-3 lead by the end of the third quarter. However, the Ravens’ defense that had entered the New England game as the top-scoring unit in the league allowed 24 points and three touchdown passes by Carson Palmer in the fourth quarter, leading to a 27-26 loss before a shocked M&T Bank Stadium crowd.

The back-to-back losses initiated a 2-4 finish, leaving the 9-7 Ravens out of the playoffs.

While most of the 2004 team has since departed, including the entire starting offense except tight end Todd Heap, defensive veterans such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs hope to avoid a similar finish to this season.

One has to wonder what potential damage the loss to the Giants will do to the psyche of the defense. Anyone that has ever watched the Ravens’ defense knows the confidence and swagger it brings to the gridiron every week. What lasting effect will it have knowing the Giants seemingly imposed their will on the Ravens in the same way they are used to doing to others?

The loss to the Giants was not unexpected, but the way in which the Ravens were physically dominated was startling.

Perhaps the most troubling reality for the Ravens entering the season’s final six weeks is the increasing number of injuries. Already with a league-high 16 players on injured reserve, including three defensive starters, offensive tackles Jared Gaither, Adam Terry, and Willie Anderson are battling injuries. With a rookie quarterback playing in intense games down the stretch, unstable tackle play could spell disaster for the Ravens’ offense.

Though Joe Flacco did not have much success through the air, last Sunday’s performance was more unlucky than bad. Despite seemingly having nerves of steel, can Flacco continue to maintain the same poise in late November and December? Head coach John Harbaugh and the rest of the staff have to be cognizant in monitoring the young quarterback down the stretch.

Flacco is the real deal and the future of the franchise, but few rookies have been able to thrive when the stakes are high late in the season. Supporters point to Ben Roethlisberger leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 15-1 mark and the AFC Championship game in 2004, but recently, Roethlisberger’s former coach Bill Cowher described him as being exhausted, both physically and mentally, at the end of the season.

These issues will be watched closely, starting with Sunday’s game against the Eagles. Much like the Bengals game in 2004, the Ravens seemingly have a winnable game against a struggling opponent. Though the Eagles are more formidable than the 2004 Bengals, they sit in last place in the NFC East at 5-4-1 with their playoff hopes in serious need of a victory.

The Ravens’ defense must regain its confidence and not allow quarterback Donovan McNabb and the Eagles’ offense to get back on track after struggling last week in Cincinnati. A loss, coupled with injuries, could send the Ravens on a similar path to what they experienced in 2004.

It is time to see if the Ravens can lift themselves up from adversity and regain their swagger heading down the stretch. Only then will we know they can avoid repeating the same history that took place four years ago.

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