Ravens to face first test against Chargers

OWINGS MILLS -- Ray Lewis' vicious forearm shiver, LaDainian Tomlinson's galloping stride and quarterbacks Steve McNair and Philip Rivers' dueling arms are the chief instruments in a dual quest for knowledge. It's a proving ground today in a clash between the undefeated Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers with both eager to learn how they truly stack up against legitimate competition.

Through no fault of their own, neither team can honestly say they've been tested yet in this young NFL season.
Generous schedules and strong play propelled the Ravens over inferior, winless outfits with a combined mark of 0-8 by an average margin of 16.7 points. Meanwhile, San Diego dismantled winless Oakland and Tennessee, a pair that's 0-5 together, by an average of 30 points.
Now, arguably the best running back in the league in Tomlinson, the two top-ranked defenses and two of the most celebrated defenders in the game in Lewis and his protégé, Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, are about to find out where they really stand.
"It's going to be the test to see how good we really are and how good they are," said Ravens quarterback Steve McNair, who will have one eye peeled to account for for Merriman's menacing presence. "We've got to make up our mind that we can go out there and compete.
"They're a physical team and we're a physical team. These are the games that you live to play for."
Because of both teams' zest for defense and a grinding running game, several parallels have been drawn between the Ravens and Chargers.
Baltimore ranks second defensively behind San Diego [173.5 yards allowed per game], giving up 197.3 yards per game while registering a league-best 16 sacks.
Besides the flexing defenses, each team features blue-chip tight ends in Todd Heap and Antonio Gates and proven veteran receivers in Derrick Mason and Keenan McCardell. It's expected to be a hard-hitting, emotional contest.
"This is going to be as physical a game as we've probably had in a long, long time," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.
From the Ravens' standpoint, this is more than another routine encounter with a highly-regarded running back. They readily acknowledge that Tomlinson is the gold standard with his elusiveness, acceleration and underrated toughness.
However, Baltimore is no slouch when it comes to stonewalling the run. They have the top run defense in the NFL, allowing only 34.3 rushing yards per contest and 1.8 per carry.
"What makes L.T. so special outside of just his pure passion to play the game, his athletic ability is really overwhelming," Lewis said. "He has a nice stop and start. You haven't seen that too often outside of Barry Sanders.
"His change of direction has always given people problems. He's not really a big guy, but he's low to the ground, very shifty and can make people miss. When he's in space, he's probably one of the most explosive backs in the National Football League.
The last opposing running back to gain over 100 yards at Baltimore was Kansas City's Priest Holmes on Oct, 4, 2004.
Tomlinson, though, could be an exception to that rule. He's averaging 101 rushing yards per game this season and rushed for 105 yards against Baltimore in a 2003 Ravens win.
In his sixth season, Tomlinson has already gained 7,563 rushing yards with 75 touchdown runs. Plus, he's a receiving threat with a 100-catch season under his belt in 2003. He has even thrown four touchdowns.
"He is the best running back in the NFL, bar none," said defensive end Trevor Pryce, who used to compete twice a year against Tomlinson in the AFC West when he was with the Denver Broncos. "If they give him the ball enough times, you're not going to negate what he does. "The only way to negate him is to food poison him the night before. That's about your only hope. I'm dead serious. If he plays, you're in trouble."
Offensively, McNair and running back Jamal Lewis have to contend with a stingy defense that has given up just seven points in two games.
The Ravens' offense hasn't been consistently sharp and have struggled in the red zone. Pass protection, penalties and McNair's accuracy have been nagging issues.
"I think it's all about rhythm this week," McNair said. "Five or three steps: hit, throw, pitch and catch. We have to execute better than we have in the past three weeks, and this is a good week to start because of the aggressiveness they showed on defense."
The Ravens' basic strategy is to contain Tomlinson and put the outcome of the game in Rivers' untested hands.
The unknown factor is whether Rivers will prove capable of doing more than managing a game. "We know what we've got to do this week: stop the backs, limit the big plays and ultimately we should be fine," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "I don't think this game is going to make our season, but we will truly find out how good we are."
The Ravens have never been 4-0 before. Their last four-game winning streak occurred in 2000, the season they won the Super Bowl. Recent history suggests big things for teams skilled enough to manufacture a 4-0 start.
All three teams that started 4-0 last season claimed division titles.
"This is one of those games where you could sit at home and be like, ‘Wow, can I play in that game one day?'" Lewis said. "This is one of those games where legends are made.
"It goes on and on with big-name players who are going at it and butting heads. This is your stepping stone. If you want your name, this is where you grab it right here."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland

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