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Old 01-15-2011, 01:12 AM   #1
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Default Starkey: Ravens' offense the great variable

Starkey: Ravens' offense the great variable
By Joe Starkey
Saturday, January 15, 2011

The question made Terrell Suggs laugh like a mad man. But it really wasn't funny. Not if you're a Baltimore Ravens fan, anyway, and especially not if you're a Ravens defender.

This franchise has been so unbelievably tough, so smartly run and so hard to score against in the 10 years since it won Super Bowl XXXV. Amid the success, however, a grotesque tradition repeats itself at the most critical times:

The Ravens are cannibalized by their own offense.

Pick a season-turning game from their recent history, and you're likely to find a stellar defensive effort ruined by a feeble offense that either does absolutely nothing or, worse, makes a game-wrecking blunder.

Prime example: In the de facto AFC North title game Dec. 5, Baltimore's offense lost its mind, and the game. Leading the Steelers, 10-6, and stationed near midfield with about three minutes left, the Ravens needed only to run clock and call on pin-'em-back specialist Sam Koch. If they had, they likely would be playing at home this weekend coming off a bye.

Instead, coordinator Cam Cameron insanely called pass, Troy Polamalu blitzed, Joe Flacco fumbled, and the Ravens lost. That couldn't have surprised anyone who follows the Ravens. Or anyone who plays defense there.

The offense blew it again.

Which is why I asked Suggs during a conference call Tuesday: Why should people believe it's going to be any different this time around?

Suggs laughed crazily and asked me to repeat the question before delivering an excellent answer: "Maybe they shouldn't, until we show them otherwise."

A familiar theme runs through the Ravens' postseason obits. Go back to 2006, when a 13-3 team rolled into the playoffs and held Peyton Manning's offense to zero touchdowns ... and lost, 15-6, in a pathetic puddle of four turnovers.

Go back to the final minutes of the '08 AFC title game, when Flacco had the ball and a chance to make history. He needed only a field goal. Next thing you knew, Polamalu was running the other way for a game-clinching score.

In their five playoff losses since 2000, the Ravens have mustered three offensive touchdowns, one more than their defense and special teams have produced.

And it's not just the playoffs.

Baltimore failed to cross the goal line in the division's deciding game two years ago, at home against the Steelers, and scored two offensive touchdowns one more than the defense in a pair of losses to division champ Cincinnati last season. That forced them to hit the road, where they scored a whopping three points in another four-turnover playoff loss to Manning.

The Ravens trumpet their impressive road playoff record 4-2 under John Harbaugh and for good reason. It is a testament to their resiliency. But it's also a product of their inability to take care of business at home during the regular season, all because of a counterproductive offense.

Will it change today?

It could. I like this Ravens offense a lot more than recent versions.

A maturing Flacco put a game-winning drive at Heinz Field on his resume this season. He also has Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Derrick Mason, Donte Stallworth and a healthy Todd Heap to choose from. Ray Rice is an elite all-around back. The interior of the line is stellar, and the Ravens are coming off a blowout win at Kansas City.

Here's the issue: They are running into a healthy, rested Steelers defense that will look to exploit tackles Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda and always approach this matchup aiming to one-up their counterparts.

"The key to the game," linebacker James Farrior said, "is us trying to outperform their defense."

Baltimore also must contend with its kryptonite Ben Roethlisberger, who is playing the best football of his career.

So many variables are at play. The game could boil down to a late kick on a cruddy field. It could turn on an anonymous player's mistake, the way the '08 title game nearly did on Limas Sweed's drop and ultimately did on an idiotic personal foul by Baltimore's Daren Stone.

Most people expect it to look a lot like the biggest games the Steelers and Ravens have played. That's the problem if you're Baltimore.

Steelers 17, Ravens 13.

Joe Starkey can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com or .
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