BALTIMORE (AP) — Everything the Baltimore Ravens accomplished last season was undone by one bitter defeat.
After compiling the best record in the history of the franchise, sweeping the hated Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time, winning the AFC North and earning the No. 2 seed in the AFC, the Ravens exited the playoffs with a 15-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
During the offseason, many of the players thought about that game more than the 16 that preceded it. And as they prepare to start the 2007 season, they still haven’t forgotten about it. Coach Brian Billick wouldn’t want it any other way.
“You use it as a motivation, you use it as a challenge,” he said. “You recognize what you did well, you identify what it is that left you with that feeling. That’s what we’re about to rectify.”
Duplicating last year’s 13-3 record and fielding the No. 1 defense in the NFL for a second consecutive season isn’t nearly as important as getting to Arizona to play in the Super Bowl.
“Playoffs are cute. It’s great to make it there, but we don’t want to be sitting at home,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, and it doesn’t feel good. Arizona is definitely our destination.”
In an effort to make it happen, general manager Ozzie Newsome brought in Willis McGahee to add some flair to a running game that often plodded to virtual standstill with Jamal Lewis in the backfield.
McGahee has breakaway speed and is a pass-catching threat, attributes that should make him valuable in an offense that expects to make more of a contribution to a team that has long relied on defense to win.
“When you think of the Baltimore Ravens, you’re going to think about the defense. And that’s one of the things we want to overcome,” quarterback Steve McNair said. “We can be that great offense. We can be that balanced team. We know we’ve proven that last year and we want to prove that more this year.”
Baltimore’s attack stepped up in late October when Billick fired Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator and began calling the plays himself. From that point to the end of the regular season, the Ravens scored at least 20 points in eight of 10 games.
Against Indianapolis in the playoffs, however, Baltimore regressed. Jamal Lewis was limited to 53 yards rushing, the Ravens committed four turnovers, and the team’s only points came on two field goals by Matt Stover.
Coming off his first season with Baltimore, McNair is far more familiar with the system. But the real difference between this year and last is McGahee.
“He came here for one reason: to run the ball and make our offense better,” wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “I think he did that as soon as he got here.”
Defensively, the Ravens must recover from the loss of linebacker Adalius Thomas, who signed as a free agent with New England. But he’s the only starter that’s gone from the unit that last year forced 40 turnovers.
Jarret Johnson, who played in all 16 games, takes over for Thomas and joins a solid linebacking crew that features Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs.
“As much as they hated to lose Adalius Thomas, this group is very confident that it can reformulate itself,” Billick said.
If the Ravens are to duplicate the success they enjoyed in the regular season last year, they must cope with a drastically upgraded schedule. Baltimore faces a wretched stretch from Nov. 25 to Dec. 9 that begins with a trip to San Diego and concludes with home games against New England and Indianapolis.
“You get what you deserve in this league. At 13-3, that’s the way this system works,” Billick said. “Our guys are very aware of the schedule we have and what we’re going to have to do. When you have a schedule like that, it’s important that you start fast.”
It begins with the opener in Cincinnati on Sept. 10, followed by games against the New York Jets, Arizona, Cleveland, San Francisco and Buffalo. Except for the Jets, none of those teams had a winning record in 2006.
If all goes as planned, then Suggs, who grew up in Arizona and played at Arizona State, will enjoy a happy homecoming in early February.
Asked to divulge his personal goals this year, Suggs replied, “Super Bowl. Personal accolades only last for a moment. The only things that last through the ages are championships. And what better place to do it than Phoenix?”