The Baltimore Ravens are supposed to be this year's sleeper team. Sleeper team? Well, apparently the Ravens have the respect of the odds-makers, who've installed the Ravens (1-0) as a slight favorite to beat the Jaguars (1-0) this Sunday at Baltimore's PSINet Stadium.
If that doesn't surprise you, then consider the fact that the Jaguars haven't been an underdog since their game in Minnesota late in the 1998 season, and that the Jaguars are the two-time defending AFC Central Division champions, while the Ravens have yet to post a winning season in their four-year history. Oh, yeah, the Ravens have never beaten the Jaguars.
Expectations for the Ravens are so high that they would hardly qualify as a sleeper team. In fact, they are being picked to finish ahead of the Jaguars in the division title race.
It would seem the moment of truth is at hand for the Ravens, who would take sole possession of first place in the AFC Central with a win over the Jaguars. However, should the Ravens lose to the Jaguars, again, the NFL's hot new team will have fallen in stature, while the Jaguars would reclaim a major portion of respect they seemed to lose this summer.
"Confidence in this league is that deciding factor in winning and losing," veteran Ravens defensive back Rod Woodson said. "My first year, nobody had it here. I wasn't used to getting on the sideline and seeing guys going, 'Oh, well, there it goes again.' It was tough, but I knew there was going to be a growing stage because the guys here were so young."
Now, the Ravens are a mature team, led by the best linebacker in the game, Ray Lewis, who is fresh off his offseason of turmoil and said to be more committed than ever to rip off the heads of everyone in his path.
"I think we're real close. I think this might be a better team than we had in Pittsburgh," Woodson said.
It had been an offseason of accolades for the Ravens, who climbed into popularity late last season, on the strength of a smothering defense and four wins in their final five games. One of those wins was a 41-14 pasting of the Tennessee Titans.
"But now we still have to play," Woodson added.
Yeah, the Ravens have to do it on the field, and this Sunday's game is one of their prime tests of the season. Everyone agrees that quarterback Tony Banks is the key to the Ravens' success this season. No one doubts the quality of their defense. It is Banks who is the unknown.
"Now he has the opportunity to live up to the promise that's always been attributed to him," coach Brian Billick said. "Before we write the book on Tony Banks, let's see what he can do with a good team around him."
Banks came on strong late last season, and had somewhat of a breakout game against the Jaguars. Then, it was the Ravens defense that faltered, allowing the Jaguars a long, game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes.
Since then, the Ravens have made sweeping changes to their roster and their psyche. When they signed tight end Shannon Sharpe in free agency, they began speaking in terms of the playoffs. When they selected Jamal Lewis and Travis Taylor in the first round of last April's draft, Billick all but pronounced the Ravens' offensive transformation complete.
Most dramatically, when Ray Lewis was acquitted of murder charges, the Ravens bandwagon became very crowded. Now, most recently, after signing Jonathan Ogden to the richest contract of any offensive lineman in pro football history, Ravens owner Art Modell proclaimed Ogden "the best tackle in football today … may be the best to ever play."
All of the fanfare means this: The Ravens are anything but a sleeper. How about a postseason favorite?
"I believe we're going to do well," Billick said. "Now we've got to come together as a team and do that; live up to all the potential we feel like we have."
"The individual accolades, they are great and wonderful and make you feel good as a person, but the ultimate title you can have is being a Super Bowl champ. I've never had that in any sport throughout my sporting career. It's a theme with me. I hunger for it so bad," Woodson said.
It would seem the Ravens do, too.