Following the Baltimore Ravens' best season in the franchise's short history, team president David Modell said yesterday he expects the Ravens to make the playoffs next season.

"The next step for us is to continue to grow," Modell said. "I'm not going to suggest what the measurement of that is--9, 10, 11 wins--I don't know what that is. But I would think that it's safe to assume that our expectation is [the playoffs]. We're capable of playing well enough to be in the playoffs as we currently exist so I think that's a reasonable goal for this organization to expect."

Baltimore (8-8) won six of its last nine games, finished with its first nonlosing season and posted two more wins than it had in any previous season. The defense ended the year ranked second in the NFL and did not allow a 100-yard rusher all season. The Ravens have a chance to become even better with four picks in the first three rounds of this spring's draft.

"You've got to feel good about where we're at," Baltimore Coach Brian Billick said. "We've got a lot of options. We're coming off, all things considered, a fairly successful year. And we've raised the bar. I've told the players we can't go back now. You've set the bar. . . . Eight and eight next year is not going to do it."

On the minus side, only one of the Ravens' wins came against a team that finished the season with a winning record. And four of their losses were by three points.

There is certainly room for improvement, particularly on the offense and special teams. While the defense had the benefit of playing its fourth season under defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, the offense struggled early as it adjusted to Billick's new system. A series of changes at quarterback did not help. Scott Mitchell lasted only two games before Stoney Case was asked to take over. Case led the team for four games before he lost the job to Tony Banks, who started the remaining 10 games.

Some of the most productive players on offense this season were those who had previously worked with Billick. Qadry Ismail, who spent four years with Billick in Minnesota, became the team's most consistent wide receiver. Ismail caught 68 passes for 1,105 yards. Fullback Chuck Evans, who spent six years with the Vikings, caught 32 passes for 235 yards and rushed for 134 yards on 38 carries.

Ismail, in particular, noticed the changes in Billick as the season went on.

"In the beginning of the year, it was the Brian of old, Brian the coordinator, the expletives on the sidelines, getting after guys and the yelling," Ismail said. "But I think when we weren't doing well . . . what impressed me was he stuck to his game plan as far as what he felt it was going to take to win."

The Ravens have begun to talk with several of the team's 19 unrestricted free agents. Billick said today that re-signing Banks and Case are top priorities. Over the next couple of weeks, the coaching and player personnel staff will sit down and evaluate the roster.

"You have to start by properly evaluating your team, what everybody's true value to the team is, what their roles are going to be," Vice President of Player Personnel Ozzie Newsome said. "Then you have to identify the guys that you definitely feel like you have to make an extra effort to re-sign."

For the players who return, this season should provide plenty to mull over during the offseason.

"We need to go and think about the games that we lost, how close we were and not let that happen to us next year," defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said. "Win the games that you're supposed to win. And when a game can go either way, do whatever you can to go and get that game, because later on in the season you're going to regret [it], whether it's getting in the playoffs, home-field advantage, whatever."