Ravens keeping their eyes on the prize

OWINGS MILLS -- One year ago, the Baltimore Ravens were a disjointed, losing team that struggled with its emotions and resolve. Now, it's an entirely different story.

For the third time this season, Ravens quarterback Steve McNair engineered a stirring fourth-quarter comeback for a win. This latest one represents the greatest comeback in franchise history as Baltimore overcame a 19-point deficit for a 27-26 triumph Sunday over the Tennessee Titans as McNair delivered the game-winning touchdown pass to Derrick Mason.

The win boosts Baltimore (7-2) to a three-game lead ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North, and earning a division title for the first time since 2003 seems like an inevitable scenario.

"Last year is still very fresh in everybody's minds in terms of what that felt like and how we got there, so we've learned a lot of lessons," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, referring to a 6-10 campaign that nearly cost him his job. "This is better. They also know that the hard thing about keeping the focus last year at this time is not all that different. It is emotionally, but, intellectually, it's the same."

The Ravens scored 20 unanswered points against the Titans as McNair tossed three touchdowns against his old team.

Plus, the defense stiffened after a shaky first half where they allowed 26 points and 267 yards. The Ravens shut the Titans out after halftime and held them to 100 yards.

It was the kind of turnaround that wasn't achieved last season as the Ravens skidded to last place in the division and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

"We want to be a championship team," wide receiver Mark Clayton said. "These are the steps that you definitely have to take if you want to win championships."

The Ravens nearly came up short, but salvaged the win as defensive end Trevor Pryce batted down Rob Bironas' 43-yard field goal attempt with 33 seconds left to clinch the victory. The difference between Pryce penetrating the line behind teammates Justin Bannan and Adalius Thomas' charge spelled the difference between winning and losing.

"We would have drawn a lot from what we did in the second half and the way we came back had they made the field goal," Billick said. "We could have felt semi-good about it, as good as you can when you lose a game, but to pull the win out as well was fun.

"You always worry about the mind-set: 'The Gods are against us. It's not going to happen today.' You resign yourself to it. That team never did."

The Ravens looked like they were going to unravel during the first two quarters as they fell behind 26-7. It marked the first time this season they had trailed by more than 11 points.

There were four unsportsmanlike conduct penalties along with coverage breakdowns and a fumble. And they struggled to contain rookie quarterback Vince Young or tackle running back Travis Henry with middle linebacker Ray Lewis out with a bruised back.

"Everything that could have possibly gone wrong to us as a team, it did," Mason said. "In the second half, we just buckled down and stuck together as a team. This is a family.

"We just want this team to look forward and put ourselves in position where everybody, not just in our division, but everybody in the AFC is chasing us."

However, there's a familiar problem that continues to dog the Ravens: a slumbering running game. Despite playing against the NFL's 31st-ranked rushing defense Sunday, the Ravens rushed for just 50 yards on 21 carries. Former Pro Bowl runner Jamal Lewis gained only 45 yards on 16 carries for a 2.8 average per carry.

Billick acknowledged being worried about the lack of production.

"A little bit, yeah, I am," he said. "We need to get more out of it. Even when we started throwing the ball all over the place, they built that box. It was one of the reasons why we were able to make some plays down the field.

"I don't mean that as an excuse for why we're not running the ball better. There are a lot of folks down there, but we do need to run the ball better. I am concerned about that."

One contrasting element of this year's outfit is an apparently defined focus. Last season, several key figures were in the final years of their contracts, including running backs Chester Taylor and Lewis, defensive end Tony Weaver, nose guard Maake Kemoeatu and linebacker Bart Scott.

Thomas is the most notable starter scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after this season.

"This situation is so totally different," Billick said. "We had an inordinately high number of guys that were in that situation. So, that vested self-interest, particularly in a tough season, is kind of hard to hold off.

"We don't have nearly as many guys this year in that same flux. So, that's an advantage right now in terms of keeping that tight team, ‘We're in this together,' mentality. This team cares for one another for a lot of different reasons."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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