Ravens at Giant crossroads

OWINGS MILLS -- In a critical bout for the survival of their postseason bid and defensive reputation, the Baltimore Ravens are faced with a dilemma. <br><br> Will they get off the ropes and punch their way into prime contender status, or will they allow the stumbling New York Giants to knock them down in the wild-card hunt? <br><br> The Ravens (7-5) have reached a crossroads.

Entering today's game at M&T Bank Stadium against the Giants (5-7), they have lost consecutive games and their grip on the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC is precarious.

Tied with the Denver Broncos for the sixth spot and one game ahead of the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens can't afford a repeat of last week's fourth-quarter meltdown. Winning the majority of their final four games is probably the minimum that Baltimore needs to be assured of a playoff berth.

"We're not in a position to overlook anybody by a long stretch," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I couldn't even begin to imagine that letting up would be in their consciousness one little bit.

"This team is resilient. We've lived it. We've been together through this. We've had disappointments before and we'll come out of this."

In order to maintain their foothold in the postseason chase, the Ravens' defense will have to rebound from last week's collapse in the fourth quarter of a 27-26 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Ravens surrendered 24 points in the fourth quarter, allowing 200 passing yards and three touchdown passes in the final 15 minutes.

Baltimore has allowed 39 points in the fourth quarter over the last two games after having given up 55 points in the previous 10 games' fourth quarters.

"Last week, some of it was individuals, or us not playing together as one," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "We gave up some foolish big plays. It's only alarming to the degree that we need to shore it up. Guys need to say, 'That doesn't happen to us.'"

Baltimore dropped from first to fifth in scoring defense and from fourth to eighth in total defense.

Despite Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed's seven interceptions and the Ravens' five defensive touchdowns, they don't resemble the 2000 edition that defeated New York 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV.
That defense allowed a record-low 165 points over a 16-game schedule. Several players -- including linebacker Ray Lewis -- remain from that team.

And this defense doesn't approach that group at all, including Lewis.

"We're certainly not the 2000 group," Nolan said. "Everybody loves to compare us to them, but this is an entirely different group, and we play with an entirely different mind-set.

"That was a try-and-beat-me thing. With these guys, we come at you with a lot of mirrors. It's also a different offense we're working with. It's our makeup to try and create the turnover, and not just wait for it to happen."

Against their Super Bowl counterpart from 2000, though, the Ravens may have an excellent shot at flexing their defensive muscles.

The Giants have lost five consecutive games. Although they feature an excellent running back in Tiki Barber, they are hindered by rookie quarterback Eli Manning.

The son of Hall of Fame quarterback Archie Manning and younger brother of NFL Co-MVP Peyton Manning, this Manning is utterly confused.

Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller, who has thrown interceptions in consecutive games, can relate.

"I know what it's like," Boller said. "Defenses are going to attack you until you prove yourself."

Manning has completed only 41.3 percent of his passes for one touchdown and four interceptions. He hasn't thrown for more than 162 yards. Teammates haven't openly criticized him, but tight end Jeremy Shockey and others have seriously questioned the play-calling of offensive coordinator John Hufnagel.

"I've got to start making plays and start executing throws that need to be made and they'll start getting more confident," Manning said. "I think they're going to keep blitzing me until we show that we can put some points on the board and make big plays when they blitz us. Baltimore is a blitz team, so I expect to get it from them."

The Ravens have generated 29 sacks, led by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs' 9 ½, and New York has allowed 47 sacks.
Asked whether Manning's prediction about the blitzes is true, Billick responded: "He's absolutely right."

Manning has directed only one touchdown drive and the Giants have dropped from 5-4 to 5-7 since Giants coach Tom Coughlin benched veteran Kurt Warner for the first-round draft pick from Ole Miss.

"He's a talented quarterback, but he leads the receiver with his eyes," cornerback Chris McAlister said of Manning. "That's the nature of every young quarterback."

This Ravens' defense has allowed 191 points, including 94 in the fourth quarter.

Yet, only two weeks ago the defense was being lauded for having allowed the fewest points in the NFL before the New England game where it allowed 21 points in the second half of a 24-3 loss.

Last week marked the first time the defense had blown a two-touchdown lead in Billick's tenure, which dates back to 1999.

"I have got a huge amount of faith in the defense," Billick said. "We're not going to panic. They know the mistakes we've made. We know how we left ourselves vulnerable, and we'll do everything we can not to let that happen again."

Lewis took umbrage at the suggestion that his defense is breaking down after admitting days earlier that some of his teammates need to perform a gut-check to make sure their heart is in their work.

He remains confident that the Ravens can overcome the setbacks, win their remaining home games against New York and the Miami Dolphins and challenge the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers in impending road games.

"We're 7-5, we have the Giants coming up at home and we have two of the top teams in the AFC after that," Lewis said. "I don't think you can ask for a better scenario if you want to be tested, if you want to find out how good you are.

Aaron Wilson is the chief writer for RavensInsider.Com He is also the Ravens' reporter for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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