The Baltimore Ravens may have an unbeatable combination in their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions: They're good and they're lucky.
No one questions the Ravens' legitimacy as an NFL power, and even the Ravens admit they were very fortunate during a three-game stretch of schedule in which they repeatedly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
It began on Oct. 28 against the Jaguars when the Ravens rallied from a 17-6 deficit early in the fourth quarter. Their game-winning touchdown play was the result of a two-yard touchdown catch that was largely hidden from the television cameras. Though replay suggested Qadry Ismail had trapped the ball, the evidence wasn't conclusive and the touchdown ruling stood.
A week later, the Ravens were pushed all over Heinz Field by the Steelers, but Pittsburgh kicker Chris Brown missed four field goal attempts, the final one a chip-shot effort that should've sent the game into overtime.
Finally, in Tennessee on Monday Night Football, the Ravens' flirt with fortune came to a head on the goal line with time having expired. Titans quarterback Steve McNair appeared to have scored but, following a discussion by officials, it was decided the Ravens had jumped offside and had made contact before the ball was snapped, which disallowed the play. On the next thrust, McNair was stopped short of the goal line.
"What's the old saying, the better you are the luckier you get?" Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Fate is always going to take a hand in some way or another, but they had the ball on the half-inch line to win the game. You put it in the hands of the players. Was that luck? When you look at the play, we earned that victory and it was hard-fought," Billick added of the 16-10 win.
"Yeah, we've been riding on a little luck these past couple of weeks," guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "It seems like we come out to play in the fourth quarter. If the game were 45 minutes, they would have probably had us. But the game was a full 60 minutes long and that's what made the difference."
This Sunday, the Jaguars will attempt to finish what they began a month ago, when Mark Brunell turned in a second consecutive spectacular performance in Baltimore, only to lose. This time, the Jaguars (3-6) will host the Ravens (6-4) at Alltel Stadium, in what will be the final meeting between the two teams as members of the AFC Central Division.
"We're defending champions. We don't plan on losing that championship easily. We've got to retain it," defensive end Michael McCrary said following the Ravens' 18-17 win in Baltimore.
The Ravens are not without their troubles, too. Starting quarterback Elvis Grbac was an interception machine in last Sunday's upset loss to Cleveland, and Randall Cunningham has barely been able to fill the void at quarterback when Grbac has been hurt. The right side of the offensive line has been a particular trouble spot, and the Ravens are down to a group of castoffs at running back. One of those, however, was the star of the Ravens' rally to beat the Jaguars.
"Jason is getting better and better," Billick said of Jason Brookins, who was on the Jaguars' practice squad a year ago. "But there are certain things Jason can do and certain things he can't do, and we don't want to put him into a position where he can't be successful, or use him up to where he's not there. Jason, we know, is capable of helping us in a certain capacity.
"We'd love to have the ability to come out and dictate the tempo of the game by running the ball. We did that last year," Billick added.
The Ravens still dominate on defense. It remains their great strength and the Jaguars will be staring across the line at Tony Siragusa, Ray Lewis and company again this Sunday.
"That's what you get when you're a Super Bowl team," McCrary said of the Ravens' recent late-game heroics. "You can come back from things like that and not let it bring you down. You can keep the hope and pressure coming. That shows the character of this team."