Undefeated Ravens hitting prime time

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The dramatic series starring the Baltimore Ravens gains a much larger audience Monday night when their latest chapter unfolds. Following two consecutive cliffhanger victories defined by quarterback Steve McNair's last-minute heroics, the Ravens hit prime time with the entire nation watching.

Baltimore is 4-2 in Monday night games Validation, an unprecedented 5-0 mark and settling a score from last season are all within the Ravens' grasp if they can topple the Denver Broncos (2-1) at Invesco Field at Mile High. Monday Night Football is a popular program in the Ravens' locker room, especially since they own a 4-2 all-time mark since their inaugural season.
"You want to display your talent and display what kind of team you are and what you are made of on the national stage," linebacker Bart Scott said. "The biggest stage that you can be on, other than the playoffs, is Monday Night Football.
"It's when all of your peers and the whole world is watching. You are the only game that day, and you are the show."
Despite an undefeated record, a four-game winning streak unwitnessed in Baltimore since a 2000 season that ended with a Vince Lombardi title, the second-ranked defense in the league and, finally, a veteran quarterback that knows the meaning of composure, the Ravens are the underdogs again.
Denver, which defeated Baltimore 12-10 last December, has been installed as a 3 ½ point favorite. This, despite how the Ravens, who opened the season with three victories over lowly Tampa Bay, Oakland and Cleveland, just handled the previously unbeaten San Diego Chargers.
"Not to keep bringing up comparisons to 2000, but I remember vividly that we were not picked one week during that season to win a game," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "So, we love it. In fact, keep us the underdog.
"There are no expectations when we go in. You hear the talk all week: ‘They can't do this, they can't do that.' Okay. Sooner or later, people are going to have to realize that it's still just football."
The Ravens aren't complaining about their results, but they would like to change the script for how they've been winning.
Baltimore has outscored opponents, 86-33, including 43-3 in the second half, but has had to overcome deficits the past two weeks against San Diego and Cleveland. A lackluster offense ranked 28th in the NFL has woken up from its slumber just in time and scored just enough points to retain a pristine perch in the standings.
"Tune in early this time," said McNair, who has been erratic for all but the most important portion of the game: the final minutes of regulation. "We're going to try to get things started fast and keep it going. We don't want to wait until the last minute."
Especially not against a stout defense that features shutdown cornerback Champ Bailey along with linebackers Al Wilson, D.J. Williams and Ian Gold. The Broncos have only allowed one touchdown, the fewest in the NFL.
For McNair to build an early lead, he's going to have to be more accurate, the play-calling could stand for some innovation and he'll need the support of a running game that has been nonexistent for the most part.
Jamal Lewis gained a season-low 34 yards on 15 carries against the Chargers.
"We need to run the ball better," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.
Despite competing against three of the NFL's worst rushing defenses with Oakland, Cleveland and Tampa Bay entering Sunday ranked 28th, 29th and 31st, Baltimore is averaging a franchise-low 95.8 rushing yards per game.
Insisting that his health is not the problem, Lewis expressed confidence that his fortunes are going to change. Plus, he predicted that the offense will improve once McNair, who was acquired in June for a fourth-round draft pick, becomes fully acclimated to the playbook.
"Eventually, my number will be called," he said. "As long as we win, it's all sweet and good. It's going to be really good. You have to take into consideration that McNair hasn't been here that long. "We have to roll with him with what we can put in our packages and the things that we can do. I think it's going to take a little time and by midseason, I think this train will really be rolling."
The Ravens have a knack for Monday night games, including an electrifying 2002 win over the heavily favored Broncos where cornerback Chris McAlister returned a missed field goal 107 yards for a touchdown.
"We've got the whole world watching," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "This is a shock to everybody that we're 4-0, and now everybody gets a chance to see what we're about. It's going to be fun to see if we can perform on national television in a big-time game."
Despite increased attention that prompted linebacker Adalius Thomas to joke this week in the locker room about where were all these reporters at the beginning of the season, the Ravens don't seem to have forgotten where they came from.
Only a month ago, they were merely a revamped team coming off a 6-10 campaign low-lighted by a 2-7 start that nearly cost Billick his job. Now, they're atop the AFC North division as one of three remaining undefeated teams.
"We haven't earned the right to talk about anything but Week 5," Scott said. "I could see if we were a team like the Seahawks that was coming off a defeat in the Super Bowl, but we haven't proven anything this year except that we can win four games."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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