So, on Aug. 22, you had Chris Weinke leading the Carolina Panthers back from a 17-0 deficit against the World Champion Baltimore Ravens. Weinke, the rookie out of Florida State, needed to beat the Ravens to sew up the Panthers' starting-quarterback job. The World Champion Baltimore Ravens needed nothing at all from Weinke.
In fact, the World Champion Baltimore Ravens don't need much from anybody. At the moment, with the games unplayed, they have a better chance than anyone else to win the Super Bowl. They don't have a better chance than everyone else put together; picking the field is, as always, the best bet. But they have one considerable advantage over almost every other team: They know they can win.
Much is made about the ability to Win the Big One, as some sort of test of fortitude. The Tennessee Titans, despite playing the most consistently good football in the AFC the past two years, have not Won the Big One. The Buffalo Bills never could Win the Big One. There may be something to this--I like Tennessee, but they looked nerveless and unhappy in their playoff loss last year, and I worry about their future.
With the Ravens, though, there's less room for psychologizing. The Ravens Won the Big One so fast, they didn't stop to win any Little Ones: They have the Lombardi Trophy, but they have yet to win the AFC Central. What last year means, simply enough, is that the Ravens are good enough to win a title. Because they did.
And on paper, the 2001 Ravens are better than the 2000 model. That is, they're pretty much the same, only with more experience. They lost Jamal Lewis, true, but they lost Trent Dilfer and Tony Banks too. At the least, the offense should be much more aesthetically appealing. I've had a soft spot for Elvis Grbac ever since I saw him come off the bench for Michigan, as a red-shirt freshman, and lead an almost-game-winning rally against Notre Dame. And backup Randall Cunningham is probably my favorite football player in the world. If Grbac goes down, I hope Art Modell does too; I can't cheer for Modell's team, but I can't cheer against Cunningham.
So what's all this mean? When I first looked at the Ravens' schedule, before Lewis' knee gave way, it whispered "13-3" at me. After I frowned at it for a while, it said, "OK, maybe 9-7, but no worse." This is not the all-cupcake buffet of last year--except for the season-opening amuse-bouche of the Chicago Bears--but the champs still play in the AFC Central, where you get four automatic W's just by showing up against the orange-helmeted teams, like the points you get for putting your name on the SAT.
If they want double-digit wins again, the Ravens will have to do it on merit. The Greatest Defense of the 21st Century will take on the amped-up offenses of the Minnesota Vikings and the Indianapolis Colts. The team that rolled through the playoffs on the road now gets to travel to Denver, Green Bay, and Tampa Bay.
They still should win most of those games, if they're as good as they look. Most Sundays, whoever they're playing, Ray Lewis will be the best player on the field. If they keep kicking field goals, they should be fine.
The big question they face is that of luck--or what passes for luck in the NFL. The Ravens were almost certainly not the most gifted team in the NFL last year. The most gifted team was the St. Louis Rams, circa October, or the Broncos circa November. But then Kurt Warner broke his pinkie and got a concussion, and Brian Griese's shoulder started rattling in its socket while his running backs kept limping off the field. And by January, the Ravens, who'd avoided serious injury, had the advantage.
The Ravens look less lucky this year. Jamal Lewis is gone already, and the offensive line is dinged up. This is where their schedule comes in. I used to accept the line that the best teams come from the toughest divisions. Now I doubt it. Teams in tough divisions beat each other up. The key to the Ravens' success was their incredible run of soft teams down the stretch. While the obvious contenders battled to the finish line, the Ravens eased through December happy and healthy, gathering steam.
In this age of enforced parity, the schedule can make the difference. Which is why I'm keeping an eye on the ever-so-lowly San Diego Chargers. San Diego went 1-15 last year, with head-case quarterback Ryan Leaf at the helm. They were atrocious. But six of the losses were by a field goal or less. And in the off-season, they dumped Leaf and brought in Doug Flutie. Flutie wins games. Put Flutie on last year's Chargers and at least five of those six close games are wins.
And these Chargers aren't playing last year's schedule. They're playing the schedule you get by going 1-15. Here's how it begins: Washington-bye-at Dallas-Cincinnati-at Cleveland-at New England. Flutie's team pushes off the dock into a smooth-flowing river of custard. They should win 10 games and go to the playoffs, whether they're actually any good or not. I doubt they'll do much once they get there. But then, that's what I thought about the Ravens a year ago.
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