Ravens primed for prime-time

OWINGS MILLS -- The prime-time stage is beckoning the Baltimore Ravens, an expanded platform where they could reinforce their national reputation by displaying their feisty, swaggering personality. The cameras will capture every Ray Lewis strut, hit and pose as well as Bart Scott's colorful trash-talking, bouncing those images off satellites into virtually every home in the civilized world.

As the defending AFC North champions open the season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium, the Ravens are highly aware that this encounter represents more than just an opportunity to claim divisional bragging rights and launch the season on a high note.

It's a chance to make a statement to the entire NFL, including several pundits who doubt the Ravens' chances to separate themselves from a crowded AFC pack headlined by the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, the revamped, talented New England Patriots and a San Diego Chargers squad that only lost two games last year.

This feels like much more than an average football game to the Ravens.

"It's one of those times where you know you're a featured story and you want to really represent yourself well on television in front of your peers," said Scott, who's not shy in front of a big audience. "You're the main event, and we're used to dealing with that now.

"We're a team that's expected to perform in these types of football games. It never gets old playing on Monday night football. Other than the Super Bowl or the playoffs, there's no bigger game."

The league office and its broadcast partners are banking on the Ravens garnering high ratings this year.

Including Monday night's matchup and a Sunday-night preseason game last month against the New York Giants broadcast nationally by NBC, the Ravens will play in at least five prime-time games.

That includes a Nov. 5 Monday night game against their archrival Pittsburgh Steelers, a Dec. 3 Monday night game against the Patriots and a Dec. 9 Sunday night game against the Colts in a rematch of the Ravens' bitter 15-6 playoff loss last January.

On the heels of a franchise-record 13-3 campaign where Baltimore won its second division title and was seeded second in the AFC, expectations have been raised and so have the stakes.

"Going against a division rival on Monday night? What else do you want?" quarterback Steve McNair said. "It's a challenge for us. We want to go ahead and get this challenge behind us and see how much better we got from last year."

However, a year ago, the Ravens weren't very good in this type of situation.

They went 0-3 in prime-time games.

McNair tossed three interceptions in a 13-3 loss to the Denver Broncos.

The defense was outsmarted by the Bengals on a flea-flicker touchdown pass in a 13-7 loss.

And Baltimore committed four turnovers in an offensive meltdown against the Colts.

"I think that was just a coincidence how we did last year in national games," receiver Demetrius Williams said. "This year we have a different attitude.

"I don't care whether we're playing in front of Roman gladiators, we're going to show up and play like the Ravens. We'll even play in a parking lot if they ask us."

Nationally, the image of the Ravens hasn't changed.

They're known primarily for an aggressive, gritty defense whose imprint on games is punctuated by the hard-hitting and demonstrative style of Lewis, a perennial All-Pro middle linebacker.

Their offense is often a mere afterthought, although that could change with the addition of running back Willis McGahee and if McNair is highly successful at throwing downfield to tight end Todd Heap and receivers Mark Clayton, Derrick Mason and Williams.

Still, commentators tend to focus mainly on the team's raw, physical approach. It's a perception the Ravens definitely embrace.

"We're the new bad boys," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I think we kind of took it from the Oakland Raiders a few years ago.Nobody likes us, but we like that.

"They're always going to throw us to the juggernauts. We're really good guys once you get to know us. Out there on that field, yeah, we might be bad. We know all the eyes are going to be on us."

Those eyes have already cast a few doubts, though.

Sports Illustrated picked the Ravens to finish second in the AFC North behind the Bengals, and NBC commentators Cris Collinsworth and Jerome Bettis picked the Steelers to win the division.

Not everyone feels that way.

"When you ask someone who the top teams in the AFC are, they'll say the New England Patriots look like the best team, go right to Indianapolis and then go to San Diego and you think, 'Where the hell is Baltimore?'" veteran NBC analyst John Madden said while visiting training camp in Westminster. "I think a lot of people are missing that. Whether they're going to be a Super Bowl team or not, that's too far away. But when you start rattling off the top teams in the AFC, I think you have to go here pretty quickly."

The Ravens are 11-13 all-time in prime-time games, including a 4-3 mark on Monday nights under Ravens coach Brian Billick.

And although the Ravens have slumped lately in national games, it's not as if they're unaccustomed to playing in this type of game.

With his players eager to put last season's playoff loss behind them and open the season in strong fashion, Billick seems unconcerned about the Ravens' motivation.

"Pick any one and it's enough: first game, on the road, Monday, in the division," Billick said. "If anyone does not understand what that entails, we've probably got the wrong guy. But I don't think we do. I think everybody understands what Monday night represents."

The Ravens are determined to win their second consecutive season opener following a 27-0 road victory last season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That was one of their most impressive performances last season, including some violent shots on Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms in pressuring him into three interceptions.

"We promise we're going to go out and play football like we always do," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "That's what we do here: start fast and finish strong. That's what I can tell you to expect, a very good game.

"Anytime you can get out fast and perform the way we did last year against Tampa, it sets the tone for the rest of your season. This year is no different."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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