- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

OWINGS MILLS, Md. Perhaps Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick deserves consideration for coach of the year honors.
Who would have thought in September that the youthful Ravens would be in playoff contention with three-quarters of the NFL season completed? It seemed unlikely the Ravens would be 6-6, especially after they released 27 players including 12 starters from a 10-6 playoff team because of salary cap problems.
The Ravens opened the season with 19 first-year players. Thirty-five current players are undrafted free agents, unrestricted free agents or sixth- and seventh-round draft choices. Fourteen of the 22 starters have been regulars less than two full seasons.
Throw in season-ending injuries to five-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis, veteran sack specialist Michael McCrary and wide receiver Brandon Stokley, and it's pretty remarkable the team isn't getting blown out on a weekly basis. Billick and general manager Ozzie Newsome have made something out of nothing.
"Our players, including the young ones, keep responding to adversity," Billick said. "No one has curled up into the fetal position and cried for Mom. We've given ourselves a heck of an opportunity. We're still hanging around, and we have one of the best teams [New Orleans] coming to our house."
The Ravens trail the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4-1) by 1 games and are tied with Cleveland for second place in the AFC North. To qualify for the playoffs, the Ravens probably need to win the division.
Today at Ravens Stadium, Baltimore tries to keep its playoff hopes alive against the powerful Saints (8-4). The Ravens are winless in three games against NFC teams this season, but a win over the Saints would put the Ravens over .500 for the first time this season.
The Saints are also in the thick of a playoff race and believe they can still win their division and perhaps homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. New Orleans is coming off a 23-20 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3). Two of the Bucs' three losses are to the Saints.
Historically, the Ravens play their best football late in the year. Under Billick, they've gone 21-7 in November and December.
"We're not all the time healthy, but we're fresh, and that's the bottom line," cornerback Chris McAlister said of the team's late-season success. "I think Coach Billick does a great job of making sure that we have our legs underneath us going into the last six weeks of the season. It helps us go out and react faster."
The Ravens' anemic offense will have its hands full with the aggressive New Orleans defense. Earlier in the week Billick called the Saints "as physical a team as we've seen." The underrated defensive front four of Charles Grant, Norman Hand, Grady Jackson and Darren Howard don't have big name recognition, but they do have 15 sacks among them.
If the Ravens can establish the run with Jamal Lewis, the AFC's fifth-leading rusher with 1,044 yards on 236 carries, it might prevent the Saints' front four from unloading on quarterback Jeff Blake.
"We just have to stay in the game," Lewis said. "As long as we can keep grinding the football and playing physical up front the line blocking well and the fullback blocking well we'll be able to run the ball."
The Saints have big-play weapons on offense and special teams. Running back Deuce McAllister (1,049 yards on 232 carries, 10 touchdowns) is the NFC's leading rusher and also a receiving threat coming out of the backfield. McAllister is the Saints' second-leading receiver with 39 receptions for 305 yards and two TDs.
On the outside, the Saints are loaded. Wide receiver Joe Horn already has gone over the 1,000-yard receiving mark with 66 receptions for 1,058 yards. Tennessee rookie Donte Stallworth (25 receptions for 324 yards and six TDs) is on the verge of stardom. Veterans Jerome Pathon (38 receptions for 455 yards and four TDs) and Jake Reed (14 receptions for 217 yards and two TDs) provide multiple targets for quarterback Aaron Brooks, Michael Vick's cousin.
Saints return specialist Michael Lewis is as dangerous as they come. In Week 6 against the Washington Redskins, Lewis returned a kickoff 90 yards and a punt 83 yards for touchdowns.
Win or lose today, the Ravens have exceeded everyone's expectations and maybe even their own.
"At the beginning of the season, [people thought] if we got four wins, then that was a good season for us," McAlister said. As long as we keep doing what we're doing, we'll be fine."

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