- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2000

For four years, that "special feeling" lay hidden in the Baltimore Ravens' Owings Mills, Md., training complex.

Ravens owner Art Modell enlisted Brian Billick two years ago to get it back.

Last season, Billick began to unearth some of the lost glory by going 8-8 for the first non-losing season in Ravens history.

But it wasn't clear until Week 6 of this season that the special feeling Modell sought the same emotion and togetherness that carried the Cleveland Browns to three trips to the AFC Championship game in the late 1980s had returned. That week the Ravens earned a 15-10 win at Jacksonville that gave them a season sweep of the Jaguars, a team Baltimore had not beaten in eight tries before this season.

And by dismantling the San Diego Chargers 24-3 on Sunday, Billick's bunch clinched at least an AFC wild-card playoff spot, delivering Baltimore its first NFL playoff team in 23 years.

"I have a great feeling about what I perceive to be [the Ravens'] great feeling for each other," said David Modell, Ravens president and the owner's son. "The entire organization feels good, and it is more akin to the organizational feel during the '80s. There was a certain "specialness" about that. It's really hard to describe, and this feels like that."

David Modell should know. He was by his father's side when the Bernie Kosar-led Browns fell one game short of the Super Bowl in the 1986, 1987 and 1989 seasons against the Denver Broncos.

Shannon Sharpe, the Ravens tight end who has two Super Bowl rings with the Denver Broncos, believes the Ravens can make it to Super Bowl XXXV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 28 because of the league's top-rated defense.

"More so because we got a defense and we know that we're going to be in every game," Sharpe said. "We know that. All you can hope for is that when you go into the fourth quarter you have a chance to win the ballgame in the playoffs. Our defense can give us a short field. Teams know our defense can take the ball away from them. Once you get in the playoffs and you get a lead on a team, they start to panic. They start to do things that are uncharacteristic. Now you play right into our defense's hands. Get a turnover and instead of us having a 10-point lead we have a 17- or 20-point lead."

If the regular season ended today, the Ravens (10-4) would host a AFC wild-card game at PSINet Stadium against Sharpe's old team, the Broncos (10-4). With Brian Griese, the AFC's top-rated passer who is expected to be healthy for the playoffs, and rookie running back Mike Anderson (1,353 yards), Denver certainly could test the Ravens defense.

"We're in the playoffs. It's a whole new ballgame," said Ray Lewis, the Ravens' three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker. "Nobody else has stopped us; we've only stopped ourselves. On past Super Bowl teams, they always had a great defense, no matter who they were."

The Ravens defense has been in place for the past couple of seasons, but offensive failures have kept Baltimore from moving into the NFL's elite. The difference this year has been the offseason acquisition of free agent quarterback Trent Dilfer and the drafting of rookie running back Jamal Lewis (1,186 yards).

Dilfer, who stepped in for ineffective starter Tony Banks in Week 9, has gone 5-1 as the starter. In Dilfer's five wins, the Ravens are averaging 29.2 points a game. Meanwhile, the 5-foot-11, 231-pound Lewis became the Ravens' single-season rushing leader.

Beating Jacksonville twice and defending AFC champion Tennessee (24-23 on Nov. 12) once has given the Ravens a load of confidence. Still, among teams Baltimore beat this season, only Tennessee (11-3), Jacksonville (7-7) and Pittsburgh (7-7) have .500 or better records.

"For us to beat teams like Jacksonville and Tennessee, it's finally good to get that out of your system after teams beat on you and beat on you, mentally," said defensive end Michael McCrary. "Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I don't think there is any stopping us."

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