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THE BELIEF The arrival of Steve McNair makes the Baltimore offense worthy-at last-of sharing a locker room with the vaunted defense, which will be overpowering with the return of Ray Lewis from a torn hamstring.
THE REALITY McNair, who wasn't acquired from the Titans until June, has a lot of work to do in a short time. The Ravens' running-back- and tight-end-oriented offense has little in common with Tennessee's more wide-open attack, and the 12-year veteran says he is taking more reps than he ever has in training camp to get acclimated. His new teammates, however, have already noticed a difference in offensive efficiency. After watching Baltimore quarterbacks throw an AFC-high 21 interceptions last year, safety Ed Reed is impressed by some of the passes McNair hasn't thrown. "He said he was going to manage the game, give the defense a rest and not turn the ball over," Reed says, "and he's definitely doing what he said he was going to do."
Here's all you need to know about the Ravens' passing attack last season: Starting wideouts Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason scored three touchdowns each-the same number that linebacker-defensive end Adalius Thomas had. That, of course, is what Baltimore fans came to expect over the last four seasons, when the team ranked no higher than 22nd in the NFL in passing. And, that, of course, was why the Ravens, tired of waiting for 2003 first-round pick Kyle Boller to develop, traded a fourth-rounder for McNair, who was locked in an ugly contract dispute with the Titans. "When the offense scores, [the opposing D] has to play you honestly," says Thomas. "They have to take chances. They can't wait on the offense to make a mistake."
Even with the addition of McNair, the offense still begins with the run and Jamal Lewis, who must get back to the form that made him the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year in 2003. Last season, coming off ankle surgery and a four-month stay in federal prison after pleading guilty to a drug conspiracy charge, the 27-year-old Lewis gained only 3.4 yards per carry-the worst rate of his career by nearly a yard.
There's even a little different look to the defense, after three starters left as free agents: safety Will Demps ( Giants), tackle Maake Kemoeatu ( Panthers) and end Anthony Weaver (Texans). Dawan Landry, a fifth-round pick from Georgia Tech, will fill the hole at safety; Kemoeatu's spot will be occupied by first-rounder Haloti Ngata ( Oregon); and four-time Pro Bowl pick Trevor Pryce, a free agent signed to a five-year, $25 million deal, is the new end. G.M. Ozzie Newsome hopes Pryce follows in the mold of Tony Siragusa, Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe, veteran pickups who gave Baltimore a couple of quality seasons toward the end of their careers.
The return of two former NFL defensive players of the year, Lewis and Reed, both of whom missed the second half of 2005 with injuries, makes the defense whole again. Lewis has shown his old spark in training camp. "People are saying that he's not one of the best players in the league anymore," says Newsome, "and I think he's back to prove that he is."
With all the big names on this roster, it's easy to imagine the Ravens making a dark-horse run to the Super Bowl. But taking into consideration the ages of many of those stars, plus the uncertainty of whether they can rebound from injuries and off-seasons, it's hard to figure that Baltimore will leapfrog Pittsburgh.
10 at Tampa Bay