- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

OWINGS MILLS, Md. The Baltimore Ravens would like to remind all doubters that NFL cream rises to the top in November and December.

The Ravens are money during the stretch, when football weeds out pretenders from contenders. Under third-year coach Brian Billick, Baltimore is 14-3 in November and December, including last season's convincing 21-3 AFC wild-card victory over the Denver Broncos on New Year's Eve.

Losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns caused some to question whether the Ravens could repeat as Super Bowl champions, but Baltimore has closed out the past two seasons almost as efficiently as Mariano Rivera slams the door in the ninth inning.

Last season the Ravens finished on an 11-0 tear, culminating in their Super Bowl triumph over the New York Giants. In 1999, Baltimore finished 6-3 and won five of its final seven games.

"November and December is when all the teams that you expected to be there either rise to the top or fall out that's just the way it is in this league," said Shannon Sharpe, who needs six receptions Sunday against the AFC Central-leading Pittsburgh Steelers to become the NFL's all-time receptions leader among tight ends. "Every now and then, you get a couple of teams that get off to great starts, then all of a sudden you know it's not for real and they start to fall by the wayside. By the same token, teams that are for real somehow find ways to sustain that growth that they started in September and October."

While the Ravens (4-3) are behind last year's Super Bowl pace by one game, the schedule looks favorably upon the champs down the stretch. Five of their final eight games are at home, where the Ravens have yet to lose this season.

Last season Baltimore played five of its first seven on the road. This season, partly because of the September 11 attacks, the Ravens played seven of their first 10 on the road.

So far this season, the Ravens are just 1-3 on the road. In their losses to the Bengals and Browns, the young upstarts from Ohio had something to prove to the brash champions.

"If you want to win and get into the playoffs and win your division, you have to win in November and December that's just a must," said Ravens safety Rod Woodson. "We're in that stretch now. I don't care who we play, I don't care if it's the AFC Central or the NFC, we have to win football games in November and December to see the playoffs."

October has been nothing short of a nightmare for the Ravens. Last season they went five games the entire month without scoring a touchdown. Under Billick, Baltimore is 4-8 in October, including this season's 2-2.

The Ravens are built for late-season success. The roster is loaded with veterans who know what it takes to reach the postseason. Of the 11 defensive starters, only cornerbacks Duane Starks (four) and Chris McAlister (three) have fewer than five years on the job. Currently, the Ravens boast the NFL's second-rated defense.

The Ravens will go only as far as their suffocating defense carries them. And that defense still has something to prove, especially when temperatures drop and teams become more run-oriented.

"Our team is going to get better and better," defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said. "We're just trying to follow what we did last year. Just get a little bit better every game, get the wins in, put them in the barn, keep going, and when you get to December, you have enough wins to get into the playoffs, and then you let it all hang out.

"That's pretty much the recipe that everybody uses. You can't have setbacks; you can't go and try and re-invent the wheel in November and December, or you're going to find yourself in trouble."

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