- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Baltimore Ravens know if they win their final four games, they should make the AFC playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

Conversely, with a loss to the reeling New York Giants (5-7) today at M&T; Bank Stadium, the Ravens (7-5) might as well start preparing for 2005.

“We’re sitting in a great playoff position,” six-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis insisted. “Everybody acts like everything’s bad. I think we’re sitting right where we need to be sitting.”

Right now, the Ravens do not hold the tiebreaker over the Denver Broncos (7-5) for the second and final AFC wild card. The Broncos have just one game remaining against a winning team, the 9-3 Indianapolis Colts. The Ravens have two tough road games left, next week at Indianapolis and the following week at division-leading Pittsburgh (11-1).

“This is the way it’s always been around here,” Lewis said. “We’ve never done anything easy, even in 2000 when we won a Super Bowl. … I’ve been through this before.”

What is giving media and fans cause to panic is that the Ravens’ star-studded defense collapsed in the fourth quarter the last two weeks, surrendering 39 fourth-quarter points in losses to the New England Patriots and Bengals

For much of the season, the Ravens’ defense led the league in fewest points allowed. Now they find themselves fifth in the NFL in points allowed. Last week, with the Ravens leading 20-3 heading into the fourth quarter, their defense was carved apart by Bengals second-year quarterback Carson Palmer in a stunning 27-26 home loss.

“I’ve got a huge amount of faith in the defense,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “Someone said before we were 34-0 in my tenure here when we had a 14-point lead. Now we’re 34-1. We’re not going to panic at 34-1. We’re just not going to do it. This team knows what its about — they know the mistakes that we’ve made. They know how we’ve left ourselves vulnerable, and we cannot let that happen again, so when we get in that situation again, we’ll come back and be 35-1.”

The Ravens’ offense should receive some good news on its injury front. Star running back Jamal Lewis, listed as questionable on the week’s final injury report with a sprained ankle, could be a game-time decision after missing the two losses.

With Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap returning last week after missing nine games with an ankle injury, Lewis’ return could put the Ravens’ offense at nearly full strength again with the only question mark being right tackle Orlando Brown (knee).

Meanwhile, the Ravens’ dicey postseason aspirations appear in great shape compared to those of the Giants. New York opened the season 5-4 behind veteran quarterback Kurt Warner. But since coach Tom Coughlin benched Warner for rookie Eli Manning, the Giants have lost three straight.

The Giants are mathematically still alive for a playoff spot, but there are few signs that Coughlin’s troops are moving in the right direction. Last Sunday, the struggling Washington Redskins blasted the Giants 31-7 at FedEx Field.

“We’ve got some things that have to be improved upon,” Coughlin said. “The continuing development of the young quarterback is first and foremost on our minds. We need to make sure we go forward with that against a very, very good football team.”

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