- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2001

OWINGS MILLS, Md. The Baltimore Ravens resumed their regular practice schedule yesterday knowing that qualifying for the playoffs may be more difficult than it was last season.
With the NFL considering scrapping first-round wild-card playoff games to complete the league's 16-game schedule in the aftermath of last Tuesday's terrorist attacks, the Ravens' margin for error this season could be diminished. Baltimore was 12-4 last season en route to winning Super Bowl XXXV as a wild card. The Tennessee Titans won the AFC Central last season with a 13-3 record.
The Ravens are not going to leave anything to chance. They know they can win the division or risk the roll of the dice.
"Twelve might not be a given," said tight end Shannon Sharpe on how many wins it will take this season to lock up a playoff spot. "Given the situation the last couple of years, 13 wins has won the division, but 12 wins might not get you in. The safest way is to win your division and then you take all the other stuff [such as tiebreakers] out of the equation."
If the wild-card round is dropped the league is supposed to make a ruling via conference call today it would be the first time since the 1990 season that there will be only one wild card and three divisional champions in each conference, instead of three wild cards and three divisional winners.
"It puts more emphasis on playing and being focused throughout the year to win your division," said Ravens safety Rod Woodson. "But it's irrelevant what I think. I think what the owners are going to decide is, do we let eight teams get paid that weekend or do we let all 31 teams get paid?"
Television revenue will play a part in the league's decision. Traditionally, ABC has been the lone network to televise the AFC and NFC wild card round. ABC's involvement in the playoffs usually ends after wild-card weekend unless the network has the rights to the Super Bowl.
Nonetheless, the Ravens (1-0) know the bar could be raised. Baltimore won 12 games last season and did not score a touchdown in October a span of five games. There is more pressure for the Ravens to win games they are supposed to win, like Sunday's divisional game at the Cincinnati Bengals (1-0).
"You can't afford to lose a game now and think that you are going to bounce back because you've got two wild card spots that aren't there anymore," said Ravens cornerback Duane Starks, who will make his season debut against the Bengals after sitting out the Ravens 17-6 season-opening win over the Chicago Bears with a sprained knee. "I think 12-4 is pushing it. The best will survive."
With last night's game against the Minnesota Vikings canceled because of the terrorist attacks, the Ravens are now faced with six of their next eight games on the road. After the Bengals, the Ravens travel to the explosive Denver Broncos, return home to play division rival Tennessee, then visit the dangerous Green Bay Packers and lowly Cleveland Browns. The Jacksonville Jaguars come to PSINet Stadium Oct. 28 and then the Ravens hit the road again for another two weeks when they play the Pittsburgh Steelers and the return game against the Titans.
"We have six out of our next eight on the road, that's where my focus has to be," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "No one else has to do that. I'm beginning to get a little personal about this thing. The next closest are the San Diego Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers [who] have five out of seven, but Tampa has this week off. That's a task, particularly dealing with the circumstances [the U.S. is] dealing with right now. We've been down this road before."
Indeed. During last season's AFC playoffs, the Ravens won back-to-back road games at the Titans and Oakland Raiders two of the most difficult venues to win at in the league on the way to the Super Bowl. The Ravens opened last season playing five of their first seven games on the road and went 5-2.
"If you are not thinking about winning the division, there is no guarantee that you are going to get in," Sharpe said. "When things that are out of your control happen, you just have to roll with whatever the NFL decides and just make do. We played five of seven on the road last year. We're better equipped to handle it than probably anybody else because we've gone through this before."

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