Last Saturday morning, as snow swirled outside their training facility, a handful of Baltimore Ravens soaked in a 36� cold tub, part of the hot-cold muscle-rejuvenation treatment some of the players go through the day before a game. Tackle Jonathan Ogden read a Michael Crichton novel, Prey. Linebacker Ray Lewis talked about the Cincinnati Bengals, the next day's foe, almost as if they were the prey. "Let's see what happens when we don't hand them the game like we did the first time we played them this year," Lewis said of Cincinnati's 34-26 win on Oct. 19. "They've shown me nothin'."
The old Ravens bravado is back—not that it's been gone long. In a matchup of the teams that shared the AFC North lead, Baltimore whipped the Bengals 31-13, looking like the team that won the Super Bowl in January 2001: strong running game ( Jamal Lewis rushed for 180 yards and three touchdowns), punishing defense (six sacks and five forced turnovers) and the confidence of a champion. "We control our own destiny," said Jamal Lewis. "All we have to do is not turn the ball over, and we'll win."
The Ravens' 8-5 season defies all that we've learned about football in the salary-cap era. Once a team starts an all-out purge to address its salary-cap problem (see the 1999 Dallas Cowboys), it's supposed to take at least two or three years to become a winner again. But for Baltimore it's been just a little more than a year. After spending $104.6 million on bonuses to make title runs in 2000 and '01, the Ravens whacked 12 starters before the 2002 season and then went 7-9. "It was scorched earth," says coach Brian Billick. "And conventional wisdom said Year 2 shouldn't have been much better."
If Baltimore goes on to win the division, general manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff will deserve much of the credit. Of the II first-round picks Newsome has made since taking over the draft in 1996, eight were in Baltimore's starting lineup on Sunday. As for the others, cornerback Duane Starks left for a big free-agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals after the 2001 season, while outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and quarterback Kyle Boiler figure prominently in the Ravens' future. Against the Bengals, Suggs was terrific as a nickel pass rusher. His two sacks gave him an NFL-rookie-high 10 for the year, and he forced one fumble and recovered another.
But any savvy general manager knows his team is only as good as the bargains he finds to fill out the roster. And 36 of the Ravens' 53 active players were drafted in the fourth round or lower, or were signed as low-priced free agents (undrafted out of college or veterans making less than $1.5 million annually). Baltimore had a league-high 19 rookies last year and eight in 2003.
"Everyone agreed to our plan, which was trying to win a Super Bowl in 2000 and 2001, then taking our medicine in 2002," says Newsome. "We could have stretched the cap and restructured a lot of deals, but we'd seen enough teams trying to hold on: All you do is fall deeper in the hole."
In the end Baltimore's playoff fate may rest on the shoulders of one of the players Newsome rescued from the scrap heap, quarterback Anthony Wright, who has a 3-1 record since taking over for the injured Boiler. Wright has been shaky—completing 53% of his attempts with seven touchdowns and five interceptions—but what do you expect from a player who had been cut by the quarterback-needy Pittsburgh Steelers and Cowboys? In his second start as a Raven, on Nov. 23, Wright threw four touchdown passes in a come-from-behind 44-41 overtime win over the Seattle Sea-hawks. On Sunday he struggled while completing 8 of 19.
But if Wright minimizes his mistakes, the Ravens can execute their game plan: Run the ball well, wreak havoc on defense, don't give games away. Just as they did in 2000.