Well, well, well, looks like we've got ourselves a couple football teams here in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. Or is Washington-Baltimore? Either way, it was pure pigskin pleasure over the weekend.
The Redskins and Mark Brunell legitimized their masterful performance a week earlier against the Houston Texans with an overtime win against Jacksonville. I'm not ready to put the Skins in the playoffs, but when Clinton Portis is healthy, offensive coordinator Al Saunders can absolutely bludgeon opponents with his 700-page playbook. Brunell went from awful to awesome early last season and appears to be on that track again. He still doesn't throw the ball deep with much authority, but most of the plays seem to get the ball into the hands of playmakers like Portis, Santana Moss and Chris Cooley, on the move which is a scary prospect the opposition.
You have to be worried about a defense that gives up 30 to the Jaguars, but the Jags had faced some tough D in their first three games (Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis). The Skins go to New York and Indy over the next three weeks; if they can steal a win on one of those trips, they'll have two weeks of huge hype with a bye leading up to Dallas. Then we can talk playoffs.
I got a personal, if not up-close, look at the Ravens last weekend when I took my boys to see the hometown team against the Chargers. Last year, we went to the last home game, a lackluster win over the Texans that was an appropriate end to a disappointing season. We had fun, and I cheered the good plays, but mostly watched politely and kept an eye and ear out for knuckleheaded fans that would cause problems. Mercifully there were very few.
This year, the atmosphere had changed 180 degrees. As I wrote two weeks ago, the arrival of Steve McNair and two wins to open the season has jacked expectations way up. Throw in a visit from undefeated San Diego, with superback LaDanian Tomlinson, and you've got a little excitement in M&T Bank Stadium. The crowd was large and loud as Ray Lewis brought back his dancing entry during pregame introductions, but the Chargers took the opening kickoff and moved their no-huddle offense 70 yards down the field for a touchdown. The Ravens evened the score later in the quarter after a Bart Scott interception gave them the ball at San Diego's 22, but the offense fell silent while the Chargers notched two more field goals before the half to take a 13-7 lead.
The beginning of the third quarter offered no relief as Baltimore went three and out. Fans began to grumble as the announcer continually intoned, "Jamal Lewis carries; gain of two." You know it's bad when the largest ovation of the day is for a hit the punter makes to tackle a return man.
On their next possession, the Ravens seemed to get untracked with a nice play from McNair to tight end and fan favorite Todd Heap on a crossing pattern that brought them into San Diego territory for the first time since early in the second quarter. Unfortunately, head coach Brian Billick decided to get fancy with a shovel pass on second and goal from the two. The pass was complete but fumbled by Daniel Wilcox, and the fans let Billick know that his offensive genius was offensive indeed.
Meanwhile Baltimore's defense continued to hold the Chargers in check. San Diego cooperated by missing a 40-yard field goal and botching the snap on another, but hadn't really threatened the end zone since the opening drive. Tomlinson had one big gain (29 yards) in the third quarter but more often found himself in the arms of Scott (15 tackles) and Ray Lewis (14). Lewis may have lost a step, but he still hits like a Hummer, and you never see a ballcarrier squirm or lean for an extra yard or two after contact. The Ravens had no sacks until the last play of the game but QB Philip Rivers never looked confident either.
Thanks to the defense, the Ravens got the ball back at their own 34 with less than eight minutes to play, still trailing by seven. Three Lewis carries later, the punt team trotted onto the field and the boos descended on Billick. Now I know why the vendors take the caps off the bottled water when you buy them (they are less likely to remain full and become lethal projectiles).
Let me just say that the boobirds were way off on this one. Yes, it's frustrating that your record-setting running back gets stopped on third and one, but do you really want to try it again and risk giving the ball back on your own 40? And considering that McNair had just thrown his second INT of the day, can you really blame Billick for calling running plays, especially when the first down play went for six yards? And finally, the defense is pitching a shutout in the second half, so, yes, you punt the ball in this situation.
Easy to say in hindsight, I guess, because San Diego fell apart with a couple penalties and eventually took a safety. Baltimore took over with three minutes to play, 60 yards from the end zone. At this point, I turned to my sons and said, "Well, this is why you get Steve McNair. He's got the experience in this situation." Next to us, a fan turned to his son and said, "They'll never do it." Negative Ned had also booed Billick's decision to punt and to run Lewis so frequently.
McNair proceeded to orchestrate what you would have to call a textbook two-minute drill. He completed three straight passes, threw in a 12 yard scramble, and, after throwing one away, zipped a bullet to Heap who spun and dove into the end zone with 16 seconds left.
Pandemonium! Jubilation! Ecstasy! Hugs and high fives for everyone around us! Except for Negative Ned, who says, "Now we gotta hold'em." Hold 'em? Really? That's your attitude? The defense has been holding them all day. There are 16 seconds left here. This game is over. Live a little!
The first Ravens' sack of the day closes the game and the high fives go around again. As fans march out of the stadium, cheers of "Four and OH!" and "HEEEAAAAPP!" erupt and echo in call and response.
The rumblings about a "special season" and comparisons to the 2001 Super Bowl team have already begun in the local media. The schedule gets a little tougher for the next few weeks, with a trip to Denver and a home game against Carolina leading in to the bye week. The Ravens defense has intimidated young quarterbacks thus far, and while the two Jakes (Plummer and Delhomme) are a cut above what they have faced, I still think this defense can really shake a team's confidence over the course of a game. McNair should get a little better, and they don't need much more than than that.