Billick watching out for signs of complacency

OWINGS MILLS - Wary of impending football games and vestiges of post-game euphoria, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick is looking for any creeping signs of complacency.

One day after the Ravens assumed control of the AFC North with a 31-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Billick alternated between nitpicking and doing his best Lou Holtz impression about the quality of the next three opponents.

"As great as it was, it's just a step and we've got three very big games," Billick said. "Yesterday meant nothing if we don't follow it up the next three weeks. I'm confident our players are aware of that." Between this Sunday's road game against the Oakland Raiders (3-10), Cleveland Browns (4-8) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8), the Ravens (8-5) face a much less demanding schedule than the Bengals.

If Baltimore wins the next three, it will claim its first division title and return to the playoffs having missed last year after a salary-cap purge.

One game behind Baltimore in the division, Cincinnati (7-6) still has to contend with San Francisco (6-7), St. Louis (9-3) and Cleveland. "I think we are prepared and mature enough to go to Oakland and take care of business," linebacker Ray Lewis said.

Just in case the Ravens are inclined toward relaxing after dominating the Bengals behind five turnovers and NFL rushing leader Jamal Lewis' 180 yards and three scores, Billick instructed the coaches to focus on mistakes, not gold stars and pats on the back.

"That is the challenge I put to the coaches," Billick said. "I want at least one thing for every player that they can do better."

If Billick is looking for potential areas of concern, it's fairly obvious where he might start besides his team being 2-4 in road games. Quarterback Anthony Wright has gone 3-1 as a starter, and Baltimore has scored 119 points over the last three games. However, he has fumbled five times, losing three along with five interceptions, including two curious decisions Sunday where he was off-target on throws to tight end Todd Heap.

"I am not going to detail who was at fault," Billick said. "There is a fine line there. You can't reel in a quarterback too tightly. I understand what he did and we can coach through it a little bit."

The special teams allowed Brandon Bennett to return four kickoffs for 109 yards, including a 38-yard jaunt.

Although wide receiver Travis Taylor caught two passes for 77 yards, he also dropped a long pass from Wright that would have given Baltimore possession inside the Bengals' 10. He's tied with Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor for the AFC lead in drops with nine, according to Stats, Inc.

And both Lewis and backup Chester Taylor lost fumbles, the fifth one of the season for Lewis, who is tied for fourth in the AFC in that dubious category. It was his 21st career fumble, the 13th he has lost.

"You coach to perfection," Billick said. "You can't walk in front of your players and say, 'Guys, we are not going to turn the ball over the rest of the way.' They are going to look at you and go, 'Does this guy know what he is talking about?' because that is unrealistic." How will Billick identify any overconfidence seeping into the locker room?

"It's subtle," he said. "It's not going to be blatant. They are not going to be rolling in here with Hawaiian shirts on with their golf clubs waiting for their flight to Oakland.

"Just little things. They know I am watching. How clean is the locker room? Seriously, or are you getting a little lax?"

The imploding Raiders were labeled "the dumbest team in America" by coach Bill Callahan. His authority and job security are waning one season removed from the Super Bowl.

"If you overlook a team in the NFL, you are dead," Billick said. "You are absolutely dead. The players won't the coaches won't. I will make sure of that.

"We are going into the Black Hole. That is a talented team. They are dealing with issues, clearly."

After a 27-7 loss in Pittsburgh, defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield told the San Francisco Chronicle, "Obviously, the season is over. We're 3-10. Guys have to set their own fate. For some, it's their last hurrah."

Oakland is ranked 31st against the run.

Baltimore features the No. 2 running game.

And the Raiders' No. 24 offense is paired against the Ravens' fourth-ranked defense.

Can a football team like the Raiders be dangerous?

"Absolutely," Billick said. "An animal backed into a corner, what else do they have to play for? Less than a year ago, they were in the Super Bowl and I'm going to make sure this team sees that team. I won't sleep well this week."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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