OWINGS MILLS, Md. – As they stumbled to a 6-10 finish a year ago, the Baltimore Ravens were forced to answer serious questions about the state of a team that fully expected to be in the Super Bowl.

Could the Ravens win with Kyle Boller at quarterback? Was Jamal Lewis still capable of carrying the running game? Could Ray Lewis still dominate at middle linebacker, or even stay healthy for an entire season? And, most importantly, could coach Brian Billick cope with the toned-down persona demanded by owner Steve Bisciotti?

Twelve months later, only one question surrounds the rejuvenated Ravens: How far can they go in the playoffs?

Given that this team has far more balance than the one that won the 2001 Super Bowl, there’s reason to believe the Ravens could finish the season under a sea of confetti, taking turns hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

“With the type of defense we play and the way our offense is clicking right now,” Ray Lewis said, “we’re going to be a hard team to beat in the playoffs.”

The Ravens (12-3) must first take care of a few minor details, beginning with a victory over Buffalo at home Sunday. That will provide Baltimore with a coveted first-round bye and enable the Ravens to finish no worse than the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

“It’s clear what’s at stake for us,” Billick said Tuesday.

Baltimore can earn home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs if it defeats Buffalo and San Diego loses to Arizona. Even if that combination doesn’t occur, the Ravens are in excellent position for a playoff run.

Asked if the team has reached its peak, Billick said, “I hope not. I think this team really believes we’ve got our best football ahead of us, and they’re excited about that.”

The bye is no small consideration given that Baltimore has showed it plays better with extended rest. The Ravens returned from their regular-season bye to hammer host New Orleans on Oct. 29, and dominated Kansas City on the road with nine days rest after losing to Cincinnati on Nov. 30.

Baltimore didn’t win a game on the road last year, and this season it’s 6-2. If the Ravens have to play at San Diego in the AFC championship game, they will do so with the knowledge they already beat the Chargers and have defeated quality opponents on the road.

The 2000 Ravens entered the playoffs as a wild-card team and reached the Super Bowl by winning at Tennessee and Oakland. This defense may not be quite as good as that record-setting unit, but the offense is vastly superior, thanks to arguably the best trade in Ravens history: a fourth-round pick for veteran quarterback Steve McNair.

McNair is the main reason Baltimore has a legitimate shot at playing in the Super Bowl. Ray Lewis has bounced back from a season in which he missed 10 games with a hamstring injury to lead the team in tackles. Jamal Lewis has eclipsed 1,000 yards and Billick has proven to be an inspirational leader without the arrogance that once characterized his reign. But no one has been as important to the team as McNair, whose poise and leadership have been just as significant as his ability to take the offense into the end zone. Despite having his hand cut open one week earlier in a win over Cleveland, McNair threw three touchdown passes Sunday in a 31-7 rout of the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

“What kind of message does that send to the rest of the team to have a leader like that?” Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. “Steve McNair is a true leader. He’s a true warrior. Week in and week out, he gives you everything he has, regardless of injury. He’s always been there for us.”

With McNair leading the way, the Ravens have won eight of nine. Not by coincidence, the streak has come since Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and took over the play calling. Since that time, Baltimore has effectively mixed the punishing running of Jamal Lewis with an adept passing game that has flourished with the emergence of second-year receiver Mark Clayton and rookie Demetrius Williams. Todd Heap has 68 catches, Clayton 65 and Derrick Mason 63. Williams has chipped in with 20 receptions for a team-high 19.1-yard average and two touchdowns.

“The thing that is most impressive is we’ve got three guys with over 60 catches,” Billick said. “That shows the diversity in your passing attack, not to mention guys like Demetrius Williams.”

The defense, which has also vastly improved since last season, is appreciative of the help. No longer must Baltimore rely on Ray Lewis and Co. to win, although the addition of free agent Trevor Pryce and rookies Haloti Ngata and Dawan Landry has made the unit virtually impenetrable: The Ravens have allowed an NFL-low 264.8 yards and 12.9 points per game.

“There’s a certain heritage there that we hold onto, being a former Super Bowl team and, on the defensive side, the legacy that team created,” Billick said. “But we are so different a team than that in personality, structure, athleticism – across the board. Those that were a part of that before hold onto that a little bit, but it’s a different experience.”

During that unforgettable 2000 season, Billick prohibited the players from talking about the playoffs because the Ravens had never before reached the postseason.

This year, even though Baltimore has executed a remarkable turnaround, the feeling is that there is much left to accomplish.

“There’s only one reason to go to the playoffs and that’s to get to the Super Bowl. You’re not going to have anybody just happy to be there,” Billick said. “Our focus is Buffalo, but we’re at that point in the season where the Super Bowl is why you’re in this thing.”


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