ST. LOUIS – It's an eerily similar scenario for the Baltimore Ravens as they square off with the St. Louis Rams today, reminiscent of exactly where they stood at this time a year ago.
The Ravens have reached an early crossroads: a forked path between becoming a legitimate Super Bowl contender or falling back into a large pack of NFL pretenders following their debacle of a loss to the Tennessee Titans last week.
As the Ravens (1-1) play the winless Rams (0-2) at Edward Jones Dome, it's almost precisely the same situation they faced last September.
Just like this season when they stomped the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens launched last season with an impressive performance by edging an aggressive New York Jets squad.
And the following week, just as they did during a lethargic 26-13 road loss to the Titans, the Ravens appeared flat and confused during a setback to the Cincinnati Bengals last year.
"I don't really remember it that much from last year," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I just remember the feeling that you have that you're disappointed in the loss, and that seems to be the same every time. You come back in here and it's an empty feeling.
"It's gut-wrenching, but you put the emotions aside and you go to work. And that's what our guys have done. You saw them walking up here. They've moved on, they have to, because we're going to play on Sunday. And, it's a game we need to go play our best. So, that becomes the focus."
History suggests the Ravens will rebound strongly from what happened in Nashville where they turned the football over three times and mounted virtually no rushing attack and recorded no sacks on defense while their secondary was dissected by Matt Hasselbeck and Kenny Britt.
The Ravens have won their last eight games following a loss. Under the direction of Harbaugh, the Ravens are 12-4 following a loss.
Now, they face a Rams team trying desperately to avoid an 0-3 hole. St. Louis has begun the season 0-2 for the fifth consecutive year.
Handling the Rams, though, isn't a given considering their aggressive, blitzing defense and a potent no-huddle offense orchestrated by strong-armed quarterback Sam Bradford. Not to mention the Rams' certain desperation given their circumstances.
"I don't know if anybody really, really needs to get a win, but these guys are going to be feeling like they do," said Flacco, who threw three touchdowns agains the Steelers and two interceptions against the Titans. "When a team is feeling like that, and when a team has that pressure to get a win under their belts, they will probably play a little bit more like they don't have anything to lose, and they will probably come after us a little bit more. It is going to be our job to play the exact same way."
The greatest concern the Rams pose for the Ravens is a fast-break offense engineered by Bradford.
The former top overall pick from Oklahoma passed for a career-high 313 yards in a loss to the New York Giants.
Although he lacks ideal personnel at wide receiver and star running back Steven Jackson is likely sidelined again with a strained left quadriceps, Bradford is dangerous.
"I think it's a very, almost like an unpredictable system," Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "He really mixes it up a lot and makes it all fly. That's really the thing you have to hone in on is playing your responsibility, playing your keys and making sure you don't get caught up in all the different things that he does."
"We're definitely looking at that hurry-up offense on how they hurried up the Giants last week and really had the Giants out of whack and out of alignment. That's one thing we're definitely trying to zone in on and make sure we don't get caught with that."
Bradford was named the NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year last season.
The 6-foot-4, 228-pounder seems to have the right stuff to be a successful NFL quarterback,
"Obviously, like everybody knows, he's a football junkie," Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "He's a gym rat. He's got to be a bright guy.. We know he's a big, physical, talented guy. We know he can throw it, he can make all the throws.
"He's got a big arm and he's athletic. So, if we do come after him, we have to be smart and play with our lane integrity and our blitz patterns, because once he gets out of the pocket he can run."
Despite Bradford's ability to move the football, the Rams rarely capitalize.
They are averaging only 14.5 points per game to rank 28th in scoring offense.
They've scored only one touchdown in five trips inside the red zone.
They have been flagged for 17 penalties for 145 yards.
They have fumbled six times, losing three.
It's the Ravens' assignment to keep the Rams down despite an injury-riddled secondary that will be without rookie first-round cornerback Jimmy Smith again due to a high-ankle sprain and has seen Domonique Foxworth making slow progress after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last year. Chris Carr is slated to return from a nagging left hamstring injury today.
"Our job is going to be to do everything we can to make sure they don't right the ship," Harbaugh said. "I really like their quarterback, the offensive line is very athletic, they've got good running backs and these receivers are big, strong guys that can go up and make plays downfield."
Reeling from their loss to the Titans, the Ravens seem determined to reverse their fortunes.
They've been in this position before and are less prone to the doubts that plague lesser teams.
The Ravens have been to three consecutive postseasons, and are the lone NFL team to win at least one playoff game in the past three seasons.
"We've got faith in each other," Lewis said. "If we were out there playing against a high school team, you'd be like, ‘Oh, you might be concerned.' If you're playing against the National Football League, you're going to have weeks like that, you know? As soon as it's over, it's over. You come back.
"That's what keeps you around a long time: not going through that emotional rollercoaster that everything else, or everything else around you might try and take you on that rollercoaster. Don't go on that rollercoaster. Lock yourself in for the whole year and say, ‘This is a journey.' If you understand the journey, you understand that every day is a work in progress, whether you win or lose. It's about time to move on now."
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