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A Clockwork Raven

By Tom Scocca | Posted 12/1/1999

What sort of team, then, are these Baltimore Ravens? The casual observer, watching the Corvidae out of the corner of an eye, might conclude that the team is hopelessly erratic. That seems, at first, as good an explanation as any for their performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars Nov. 28, when the purple legions jumped to an early lead, then faltered, then rallied, then faltered again. The momentum swung back and forth; the fourth quarter was a flurry of parry and riposte. It was, as the cliché has it, a roller-coaster ride.

But here's the thing about a roller-coaster ride: Barring some horrible and statistically near-impossible accident, you know exactly how it's going to come out. At the end of the ride, you rattle right back to the platform where you started. At the end of the game, the AFC Central's first-place Jacksonville had 30 points and fourth-place Baltimore had 23.

Through all their ups and downs, the Ravens might be the most dependable squad in the league. At home or on the road, on a dry field or in a swamp, they lose to good teams. They lose to average teams. And, oh yes, they beat bad teams. Not once have they lost to a bad team. But neither have they beaten any good ones. You could set your watch by them, if you needed your watch to tell you when it was time to get beat.

By now, it's undeniable: The Ravens are a team of destiny. Their destiny just happens to be 6 wins and 10 losses. They are bound for low-end mediocrity the way the New York Jets were bound for victory in Super Bowl III. There's something almost supernatural about it. Back in week one, long before the rest of the league suspected that the St. Louis Rams were for real, the Ravens lost to them, 27-10. In week four, while the jury was still out on the faltering Atlanta Falcons, the Ravens marched into the Georgia Dome and took a 19-13 overtime victory.

Almost every week, especially when the Ravens are playing a superior foe, I feel a twinge of doubt about it. There's always some moment when the defense is socking it to the opposition, the quarterback of the moment is moving the ball, and the skies are clear. But the tide always, always turns.

It was on Halloween, when they played Buffalo, that I realized how spookily true this was. Knowing the Bills would win, I had, in a fit of sportswriter's antinomianism, opted out of going to PSINet Stadium and stayed home to repaint a floor lamp. So I was shocked, watching on TV, to see Buffalo trailing 10-6 in the fourth quarter, with quarterback Doug Flutie baffled by the Ravens' inside pass rush. And then the Ravens handed the Bills a miracle: On fourth and 15, with the clock winding down, the Baltimore coaches put in the prevent defense, leaving nothing but three defensive linemen between the nimble Flutie and the first-down marker. He got 17 yards. A few plays later, the Bills had the winning touchdown.

The most recent Jaguars game turned almost as quickly. With 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Jacksonville got a touchdown, cutting Baltimore's lead to 16-14. On the Ravens' next play, quarterback Tony Banks threw a screen pass. Tony Brackens, a 264-pound Jacksonville defensive end, read the play, faded back, and gathered the ball in so smoothly that for a moment, before I realized he was wearing a white jersey, I thought coach Billick! had called a tackle-eligible pass to his own lineman. Then Brackens set his feet under him and charged 15 yards upfield into the Baltimore end zone. The Genius' mouth sagged open in shock.

The Ravens did retake the lead, but the outcome was moot. They were going to lose, the way the Orioles lose in Yankee Stadium, the way the University of Maryland football team used to lose to Penn State.

The devoted Ravens fan is welcome, here, to come up with any counterfactuals he or she pleases. If the Jaguars hadn't converted a third-and-16 play. . . . If Banks hadn't fumbled the ball away deep in Jacksonville territory. . . . And if the dog hadn't stopped to take a shit, my daddy likes to say, he woulda caught the rabbit. To put it another way, if the Cincinnati Bengals could have lined up and snapped the ball without anyone jumping early, they would have beaten the Ravens the week before. But they couldn't snap the ball right, because they're the Bengals. Likewise, the Ravens are the Ravens.

Luck has surprisingly little to do with it. The things that happen to the Ravens when the chips are down are almost all the Ravens' own fault. The Genius calls timid or screwy plays. The offensive line executes badly. Banks fumbles the ball. He has now fumbled 52 times in four years. Defensive players pounce on him with the plain intent of forcing a fumble. You put money in a vending machine, you get a soda; you put a blitz on Banks, you get the football.

Then there's the defense, with its impressive reputation and statistics to match. The line and linebackers batter and stifle the opposition. The defensive backs do snotty little celebratory dances. And then they up and lose. On Nov. 28, in the fourth quarter, Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell completed 10 of 13 passes and threw for a pair of two-point conversions. He passed on third-and-long; he passed on fourth-and-short. They were risky plays, but the Jaguars had every reason to think they would work. They were playing the Ravens.

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