Ravens facing their past in Cowboys' Testaverde

OWINGS MILLS -- In order to maintain their stride in a marathon run to the playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens need to trample on their distant past.<br><br> Vinny Testaverde, the first quarterback in Ravens history and the club's all-time leading passer, brings his desperate Dallas Cowboys (3-6) into M&T Bank Stadium today for an encounter with the defending AFC North champions.

Despite the Cowboys' travails having lost five of their past six games and being labeled a stupid team by coach Bill Parcells, Baltimore (6-3) remains cognizant of the passing threat that the extremely streaky, 41-year-old Testaverde provides.

"Vinny, to me, is one of the most accurate throwers right now still in the game with all of these young guys," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, a teammate of Testaverde's in 1996 and 1997 when he passed for 7,148 yards, 51 touchdowns and 34 interceptions. "If you truly let him sit back there, he truly tears you apart. One thing about him, Vinny can get hot and Vinny can have two halves.

"What Vinny does, unlike a lot of other quarterbacks, is work out extremely hard. He works out more like a linebacker. Understanding that, you look at his longevity and say, 'This is one of the major reasons he can still throw a football and still run around.'"

Testaverde is averaging a respectable 256 passing yards with 63.1 percent accuracy. He has posted three 300-yard games and three three-interception outings for 11 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and 2,305 yards for an 84.4 passer rating.

However, the veteran is now looking over his shoulder at untested prospect Drew Hensen, but Parcells has pledged to stick with him for the foreseeable future.

The Ravens recall how Testaverde registered career-high numbers of 4,177 yards and 33 touchdowns during the team's inaugural season in 1996. In this meat-grinder game, his longevity is unique.

"Wow!, 41 years old and doing what he's doing, he can tear you apart," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "If you make this a scale game, he will surgically rip your heart out. We can't let that happen."

The Ravens' fourth-ranked defense allows the fewest points per game (14.4) in the NFL, but will be without cornerback Chris McAlister (stinger) and nickel back Deion Sanders (toe). That means Corey Fuller will start in McAlister's place with dime back Chad Williams shifting over to nickel again.

The Ravens will have to watch out for blue-chip tight end Jason Witten, who leads Dallas with 54 catches for 621 yards and five touchdowns, as well as possession receiver Keyshawn Johnson.

"I don't know if Witten is in the class of Todd Heap or Jeremy Shockey, but he's very good," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "We have to be aware of where he's lining up and get him covered."

Over the Ravens' last four games, Baltimore has only surrendered one touchdown pass and with six interceptions.

Led by Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, a prime candidate for defensive MVP honors having intercepted five passes and scored two touchdowns, the Ravens rank sixth in pass defense. They allow only 178.4 passing yards per contest with six touchdown passes given up this season.

"The offense has to wonder about it," McAlister said. "The game plan will be away from Ed wherever he may be."

For Lewis, this is perhaps his final encounter with running back Eddie George.

The two rivals and good friends used to compete against each other twice annually in the old AFC Central when George was a standout for the Tennessee Titans.

Now, George, like Testaverde, is on the downside of his career. He's averaging only 3.4 yards per carry and has yet to eclipse 100 yards this season.

"I'm always excited to play against Eddie," Lewis said. "Eddie's one of those classic warriors that you love to step onto a football field with. He's going to do his thing, I'm going to do my thing. He's going to talk, I'm going to talk. "For him to be in Dallas and now we're playing them, everything has run its course."

George rushed for 88 yards on 25 carries in the Titans' 20-17 playoff win over the Ravens in January, running roughshod over Lewis.

George, 31, faces a difficult task against Lewis as Baltimore allows only 105.2 rushing yards per game and 89.6 rushing yards in going 3-1 at home.

"We've been battling for years," George said. "We're very competitive and we want to win equally."

Offensively, the Ravens are seeking to correct an unusual imbalance: the last-ranked passing game is doing much better than the traditionally strong running game.

The expected return of All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden after three weeks with a pulled hamstring should help matters. The Ravens have averaged 152.4 rushing yards in Ogden's five games; 95.7 in four games without him.

In last week's 20-17 overtime win over the New York Jets engineered by quarterback Kyle Boller, Baltimore allowed Curtis Martin to rush for 119 yards and two touchdowns while Jamal Lewis gained only 71 yards on 30 carries.

"Both sides need to be better," Billick said. "We can't let people run on us that way and we have to run better than we did, plain and simple."

There's the obvious danger of looking beyond Dallas to next week's road encounter with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Dallas is 1-3 on the road.

"You can't underestimate your opponent," Jamal Lewis said. "We started our season like that - I feel - against the Cleveland Browns [20-3 loss]. Going in there and underestimating them and we came out and got beat.

"I think we have learned from that and we know how to handle the situation. Their record is what it is. We won't underestimate our opponent."

Plus, the Ravens need to keep pace within the AFC North. They trail the Pittsburgh Steelers by two games in the standings.

A setback today at home would essentially derail the wild-card progress gained last week in the Meadowlands.

"If we don't win, [last week's win] is almost pointless," said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who leads Baltimore with 7 1/2 sacks and will be counted on to pressure Testaverde. "This is a game we have to have. We definitely need it, especially Pittsburgh playing the way they are. If we're losing games, especially games we should win, it doesn't matter what happens down the road."

NOTE: The Ravens' annual food drive will be held before kickoff with non-perishable items and monetary donations being accepted and proceeds going toward the Maryland Food Bank.

Aaron Wilson writes for ravensinsider.com and the Carroll County Times.

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