With two regular season games remaining, the Baltimore Ravens face an enticing prospect.
If they defeat the Cincinnati Bengals (4-10) today at PSINet Stadium, the Ravens (7-7) will avoid a losing season for the first time in their four-year history and potentially will keep their playoff hopes alive.
"It is new to [the players] and they are excited about it," Coach Brian Billick said. "And they're feeding off the excitement of the city. . . . This late in the season, when you are worn down . . . physically, emotionally, mentally, and you need that spark to kind of keep you going, you don't have to dig quite as deep to conjure it up when things are going good."
Things have been going well for Baltimore recently. It has a three-game winning streak that has put it at .500 for the first time this season. The Ravens are in contention for an AFC wild-card spot, although their chances of making the playoffs are precarious. In addition to winning their remaining games (they play the New England Patriots on the road next week), the Ravens need the Buffalo Bills to lose their final two games, the Oakland Raiders to win their final two games and the Seattle Seahawks to lose at least one of their final two games.
"There's a million scenarios going out there," Billick said. "They're reporting this or that and it takes this. These teams have to do that and this one team has to lose this and the moon has to be in this position and the Dow has to be at 1,300.
"It really doesn't matter because for these guys, if it happens, great. You know there's only one option for us to continue to make it happen, and that's win."
The Ravens' immediate concern is reviving their rushing game. Early in the season, Baltimore's offense depended heavily on the run. Now that quarterback Tony Banks and the receivers have improved, their offense is not so limited. However, the Ravens are not running the ball as productively as they once did.
Last week against the New Orleans Saints, running backs Priest Holmes and Errict Rhett managed just 49 yards on 21 carries combined.
"We're going to have to run the ball better if we think we're going to play well against Cincinnati and New England," Billick said. "We've not run the ball real well the last two, three weeks."
Holmes has succeeded against the Bengals in the past. In two games against them last season, he rushed for 400 yards. His 227 yards rushing at Cincinnati on Nov. 22, 1998, remains a team record.
Baltimore's defense has been effective against the run, and the Ravens take immense pride in having not allowed any rusher to gain 100 yards against them this season. They are one of three teams--St. Louis and Jacksonville are the others--to have accomplished this feat.
Cincinnati running back Corey Dillon has fared the best this season against Baltimore. He rushed for 74 yards on 15 carries when the Ravens defeated the Bengals, 34-31, in Cincinnati on Nov. 21. In the Bengals' last game, two weeks ago against the Browns (Cincinnati had a bye last weekend), Dillon ran for 192 yards and three touchdowns.
"He's having a wonderful year," Bengals Coach Bruce Coslet said. "Early in the year, we were basically almost out of the game at the start of the second quarter and you have to abandon your running game. But if it's a close game, he's going to get his carries."