- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

OWINGS MILLS, Md. There is a difference of opinion among the Baltimore Ravens.

Less than 24 hours after getting manhandled 26-21 by the Pittsburgh Steelers on national television, coach Brian Billick said the Ravens control their own playoff destiny with three games left.

Star tight end Shannon Sharpe said it's time to panic.

"The guys are just beginning to realize that it's time to panic now because we've truly backed ourselves into a corner and we have no one else to blame," Sharpe said. "We've backed ourselves into a situation we're hoping and praying that this goes right and that goes right and it really shouldn't have to be that way because we are a better football team than that."

Billick couldn't disagree more.

"It's going to be a dogfight to the end until you are mathematically eliminated," Billick said. "For us, we're in great position. We've got to be very satisfied that we are in control of our destiny. By that, I mean, we are in control of our playoff picture. To a large degree, we're in control if we are able to finish this [season] off the way we want to and be possibly in that fourth [playoff] seed. The key is to get into the playoffs as it always is."

The Ravens (8-5) are tied with the New York Jets for the fifth playoff spot and a half game behind the New England Patriots (9-5) for the fourth seed and the right to play host to a first-round AFC wild-card game.

Billick estimates that the Ravens need to win two of their final three games to make the playoffs. The Ravens play host to the lowly Cincinnati Bengals (4-9) Sunday at PSINet Stadium. The Ravens go to the up-and-down Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-6) on Dec. 29 and conclude their season on Jan. 7 in a Monday night affair against the Minnesota Vikings (5-8) Billick's former employer.

"Where we thought we could have home-field advantage, we're basically just trying to get into the playoffs," Sharpe said.

Last season, the Ravens qualified for the playoffs as the fourth seed and won Super Bowl XXXV. But this isn't last season.

Sharpe's grim assessment a mere 10 minutes after Billick issued his "Everything is OK" proclamation stems from how badly the Ravens offense played Sunday. The Ravens were unable to run the ball just 58 rushing yards and squandered outstanding field position. Average starting field position for the Ravens was at their own 42 and they came away with just one touchdown through the first 31/2 quarters.

The Ravens have had no running game to speak of this season and that was a major reason why the Steelers held the ball 41:05 minutes to the Ravens' 18:55. Quarterback Elvis Grbac completed 20 of 38 passes for just 158 yards.

Defensively, the Ravens secondary was bombed into submission. Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw for a career-high 333 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receivers Plaxico Burress (eight receptions for 164 yards and one touchdown) and Bobby Shaw (two catches for 100 yards and one touchdown) made a mockery of the secondary now the league's 19th-rated unit.

Chris McAlister, a third-year cornerback, was victimized all night by the 6-foot-5 Burress, who established career highs in catches and receiving yards.

"[Burress] wanted the ball more than I did," McAlister said. "I'd be amazed if it would happen again. I can't wait to see him again in the playoffs."

That is, if the Ravens get there.

"Anytime you get it handed to you the way they handed it to us last night, you are searching for answers," Sharpe said.

Said Billick, "Clearly, 11-5 gives us great potential to be that fourth seed, but it's going to take 10-6 to get in the playoffs."

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