OWINGS MILLS, Md., Dec. 29 -- Cornerback Chris McAlister has noticed something different about the Baltimore Ravens this year, though he can't put his finger on exactly what it is. The Ravens certainly find themselves in an unexpected position: After pointing to the Super Bowl as their goal, they now must beat Miami and hope that three other teams lose just so they can squeeze into the playoffs as the final seed.
But there's something else.
"It's not the same feeling as last year," McAlister said. "Maybe it's because we're losing, maybe it's because things aren't the way we want them to, coming off the high expectations of last year and not being able to follow up and meet those expectations. Maybe that's what got this locker room shifted. I can't really tell you why."
Questions about the Ravens' chemistry and reports of a divided locker room took center stage in interviews with Coach Brian Billick and players yesterday. Billick was adamant that the team is unified, and a couple of players echoed wide receiver Travis Taylor's assertion that "this is one team -- we've got too many good leaders on this team for us to start taking sides with each other."
But the player widely regarded as the Ravens' leader, linebacker Ray Lewis, was absent from the locker room during the hour set aside for media availability yesterday. Lewis also did not speak with reporters Sunday after Baltimore's 20-7 loss at Pittsburgh.
McAlister indicated that there are divisions within the locker room, though he said that he didn't know if that led to the losses, or vice versa. He did know that there was something different. The Ravens moved into a spacious new training facility in October, and the new locker room doesn't have the same intimacy of the older, smaller one.
"It used to be real loose; we used to have a lot of fun in here, a lot of guys laughing, having a good time," said McAlister, who was named to his second Pro Bowl last week. "It's not that same way. I've been here for six years, and I remember coming in here and everybody moved around. Maybe because [the old locker room] was a lot smaller, and this is a lot bigger, it seemed like everybody found a way around the locker room to somebody else's seat. Now it's kind of like everyone stays in their own little corner. . . .
"It's not healthy, period, even if we were going to the playoffs."
Several Ravens spoke about the frustration of a season that began with so much promise and hype yet slowly dissolved into the current situation. Baltimore had 21 of 22 starters back from last year's team that won the AFC North title, and from training camp on, players and coaches openly talked of Super Bowl XXXIX being their goal. The Ravens (8-7) won seven of their first 10 games, then lost four of their next five to put themselves in this position.
"It's a different feeling knowing that we've got to require a lot of other teams to lose to get in," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "You can kind of tell the mood around here is a little sad. Guys aren't used to that. That's something that's new to the Ravens and the players. . . . We work hard all offseason, and to get to this point, we've kind of fallen short of our goals, our destiny, and it hurts."
Said Billick: "That's life. Those [Super Bowl] expectations were well-founded. Certainly we can't back off . . . that's what we thought of ourselves, and rightfully so."
Billick acknowledged the frustrations the players are feeling but insisted that they are handling them collectively. "They're practicing well, they're focused and they have the right will," Billick said. "Those that want to make those observations [about dissension] that are not in that locker room are doing so with another agenda."
The Ravens have not engaged in public finger-pointing, not when quarterback Kyle Boller struggled, for instance, or when the secondary got burned for three fourth-quarter touchdown passes in a home loss to Cincinnati this month. But there is a sense of missed opportunities.
"I definitely think that if you ask any player in this locker room if we underachieved, they'd say there are some games that we wish we could go back and play again because we felt like we could've won those games," linebacker Ed Hartwell said.
All the Ravens can do is beat Miami on Sunday and hope that Buffalo, Denver and Jacksonville lose, which would give Baltimore the final AFC wild-card slot.
"We're searching for answers," Baxter said. ""
Ravens Notes: Baltimore's WJZ-TV reported that sources inside the Ravens' organization have confirmed that offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh will be fired at the end of the season. According to the report, which was broadcast on Wednesday night, owner Steve Bisciotti is concerned about the public outcry surrounding the Ravens' offense, which has fallen to 31st in the NFL. Billick declined to address Cavanaugh's future with the team when asked to do so at his Monday news conference, saying that now was not the proper time, and a spokesman said that the team would have no further comment at this time. . . .
Left guard Edwin Mulitalo is scheduled to undergo surgery Thursday to repair his torn left triceps.