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ON FOOTBALL

Ravens' Billick never more confident

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The sky was falling in Chicago, Buffalo, New York, Miami, and Arizona as the ashes of burned-out football programs were being swept into the trash can. Coaches were being fired. Coaches were having personnel power zapped from their resume. Not so in Baltimore.

 

Under blue skies outside M&T Bank Stadium in downtown Baltimore, just hours after the Ravens' 13-10 overtime win over the Steelers in a good old-fashioned, rough-and-tough football game, 7,000 tickets went on sale for Saturday's playoff game against Tennessee. They were sold in 20 minutes.

While Ravens players came in for treatment on their off day here at the suburban practice facility, coach Brian Billick walked up to a microphone with a little zip in his step and bravado in his voice.

Remember Pete Carroll saying, "I'm feeling a little dangerous right now?" a few years ago at a Patriots press conference?

Well, Billick is feeling that way, too. With one Super Bowl ring on his finger already, the master motivator was selling his team on what he thinks will be a long playoff run.

About a week ago, Billick handed his players a schedule for the rest of the season. That schedule, he said, included a playoff game, with Jan. 3 circled. That's this Saturday. It ended with his Ravens facing an NFC team in the Super Bowl in Houston Feb. 1.

During his Super Bowl run three years ago, Billick handed out a very similar schedule, and the team got it done with one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. The Ravens were one of the oldest teams in that postseason. Now they're the youngest team in the playoffs, the third-youngest overall in the NFL.

They still have the best defensive player on Earth, Ray Lewis. They have the No. 2 single-season rusher in Jamal Lewis, who finished only 39 yards short of Eric Dickerson's mark -- though 2,066 yards is pretty impressive behind a huge offensive line led by Jonathan Ogden.

As much as Sunday night's win over the Steelers was supposed to be about Lewis's milestone, it developed into a game of pride and confidence. Long before they laced up their cleats, the Ravens already knew they were in the playoffs, thanks to Cincinnati's loss to Cleveland in the afternoon. They probably expended a lot more energy than they expected. And yesterday Billick wondered whether his team could recover emotionally from the game, though he knows it will recover mentally.

Recovering physically was never an issue. A Washington-area talk-show host might have said it best yesterday: "After a game with the Ravens, you feel as if you're carrying your body parts in a bag."

Billick isn't shy about accentuating his team's strength, which is power on both sides of the ball. When asked about the fact that Tennessee has the No. 1 defense against the run, he said, "We're No. 1 in rushing offense, so what do they have to do to stop us from running it down their throat? They'll put eight guys in the box, which isn't anything new for us. That's pretty much a standard alignment for them and they're very good at it. It's going to be a very interesting battle."

Billick, a student of the game, understands that of all the teams in the playoffs, the Patriots -- a possible opponent in the second round -- are the best overall. He acknowledges that willingly. He also knows his team's defense and running game are the best, and he acknowledges that his team doesn't fit the "profile" of the other five AFC playoff teams.

"One profile I always look at is defense and the ability to run the ball," he said. "Obviously that matchup is pretty good for us. As I look at the playoff teams, a couple of things jump at you, particularly in the AFC. You know the old saying `follow the money'? Follow the quarterbacks. Save for our situation, you have five All-Pro quarterbacks that are in the playoffs.

"The other thing is, every other team has something that concerns them. It's either their run defense or their run offense, their pass defense or their pass offense. Over the last 6-8 weeks, it's been a concern or a problem. That's why so many division titles came down to the last game or the last minute.

"Our profile is what it is. We're the youngest team in the playoffs. I don't have a Pro Bowl quarterback, but I've got one hell of a defense. We're running the ball well. We've shown an ability to make some big plays under the circumstances."

It is ironic that despite Billick's "genius" label -- going back to when he was offensive coordinator for the Vikings -- he's never had a great quarterback. He won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer. He drafted Kyle Boller, giving up a first-round pick to the Patriots to get him, and while Boller shows signs of a promising future, he got hurt, leaving the Ravens with third quarterback Anthony Wright after the Chris Redman experiment failed.

If teams such as the Patriots are licking their chops at playing the Ravens, it's because of what they might do to disrupt Wright. If Billick is genuinely concerned, he's not letting on.

"He'll learn," said Billick. "He's got assets around him. What we'll ask him to do will be within the framework of what we do. We've been here before. We've had success with that. You can only ask players to do what we do best. We've got a balance. We have an approach that's been successful. Anthony has to step up his play just like any QB has to step up his game."

Billick likes the matchup with Tennessee. The Ravens have won five straight in the series, including a playoff game. On Jan. 7, 2001, they beat the Titans, 24-10, in a divisional playoff game that sent them on their way toward the Super Bowl. Back then, the Ravens and Titans were fierce Central Division rivals.

"We've done this a couple of times with them, and it's great," Billick said. "Steve McNair has the heart of a lion. They're very, very explosive. They're a team to reckon with in the AFC."

In the 2000 playoffs, Billick was an inexperienced coach with experienced players. Now he's an experienced coach with inexperienced players.

"I relied on the coaches and players to handle that first experience because I was worried about my inadequacies as a coach to handle the first time," he said. "Now, I can support that group. This team is about this team and I'm just along for the ride. Hopefully with my experience I can point them in the right direction."

Or at least he will make sure they stick to the schedule.

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