The Ravens are moving into the guarded optimism stage these days. The team is showing signs of a miraculous turnaround from a year ago, but most of the players were reserved after the Ravens blew out the Tennessee Oilers, 36-10, yesterday before 17,737 at the Liberty Bowl.
The Ravens (3-1) put the game away with a 16-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Vinny Testaverde to receiver Jermaine Lewis in the left corner of the end zone with 10 minutes, 57 seconds left in the game to take a 30-10 lead, but they had dominated almost from the opening whistle.
Deep down, the Ravens know the potential of one of the league's youngest teams is starting to surface.
"If you decide to be with us, we got broad shoulders," said wide receiver Michael Jackson. "If not, we'll drag you along."
There is reason to get excited from yesterday's game.
How about the Ravens stuffing the Oilers and the league's No. 1 rushing attack for a total of 97 yards? How about the Ravens holding Tennessee (1-2) to 102 total yards in the second half, 62 passing? How about the Ravens forcing five turnovers, four of those fumbles?
And then there was the offense.
Kicker Matt Stover converted on five of six field-goal attempts, including ones from 42 and 49 yards. Testaverde completed 23 of 37 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Slot receiver Jermaine Lewis had eight catches for 124 yards. Wide receivers Jackson and Derrick Alexander combined for nine receptions and 139 yards.
And star running back Bam Morris returns today from a four-game suspension.
"Oh, my, that's when we can become really scary," Lewis said.
The Oilers embarrassed the Ravens twice last year, especially in a 29-13 win at the Houston Astrodome. But now the Ravens have become road warriors, winning their second consecutive away. They also have won three straight heading into Sunday's game against the struggling Chargers (1-3) in San Diego.
"I'm excited, but I don't want to get too excited," Testaverde said. "Truthfully, we haven't done anything yet.
"It's nice to be 3-1. Everyone is in a good mood, happy, excited about winning. But there was a team last year right down the road from us that went 7-1, and they didn't even go to the playoffs," he added, referring to the Washington Redskins' collapse of a year ago.
Said defensive tackle James Jones: "There is a positive atmosphere, but we have a lot of games to go. When things go bad, we're no longer saying, 'Here we go again.' When a guy goes down, we're getting another guy to step up."
The Ravens lost defensive tackle Tony Siragusa early in the first quarter with a tendon strain in his left ankle. He is expected to get a magnetic resonance imaging test today and may miss two to three weeks. The Ravens also lost starting tight end Eric Green to a pulled hamstring early in the first quarter.
Larry Webster replaced Siragusa and the Ravens didn't miss much as Webster finished with four tackles. Brian Kinchen filled in for Green and had four receptions for 38 yards.
The Ravens not only outplayed Tennessee but outsmarted them as well. The Oilers are a blitzing team and Testaverde and the offensive line did a great job of picking it up. Also, center Quentin Neujahr, who missed most of last week with a sprained ankle, did a great job of calling out blocking assignments. The Oilers had only one sack.
"I spent a lot of time watching film and going through the playbook," said Neujahr, who didn't get the OK to play until five minutes before the game. "I went through matching up the frame with what formation we ran and what scheme they used. With the Oilers, they throw a lot at you, so you have to be prepared."
The Ravens also took advantage of another mismatch. Jackson is 6 feet 4 and weighs 195 pounds. Alexander is 6-2 and weighs the same. Oilers starting cornerbacks Darryll Lewis and Steve Jackson are 5-9 and 5-8, respectively.
"Whenever you commit that many players to rushing the quarterback, it's hard to cover us," Alexander said. "And anytime you have short cornerbacks, we feel we can throw it up and make a big play or score a touchdown."
Alexander had two touchdown receptions and the first one was a Kodak moment. On a second-and-six from the Tennessee 25, Alexander turned a short 5- to 7-yard turn-in pattern into a touchdown as he spun away from Tomur Barnes and then outran the cornerback down the right sideline to put the Ravens ahead 10-7 with 12 minutes left in the half.
Around the 5-yard line, Alexander waved bye-bye to Barnes.
"He wasn't going to catch me," Alexander said. "It was too late. I just didn't want to get hit."
Alexander scored again five minutes later, this time after Testaverde scrambled before hitting him with a 5-yard touchdown pass that gave the Ravens a 17-7 lead with 4: 16 remaining. The touchdown pass was set up by a 40-yard pass from Testaverde to Jackson.
It was that way all afternoon. When it wasn't Jackson or Alexander, it was Lewis burning the Oilers' secondary. Besides showing no signs of a two-week layoff from a knee injury and making some incredible catches over the middle, Lewis returned a punt 45 yards to open the fourth quarter down to the Tennessee 44.
Six plays later, Testaverde threw to Lewis for the touchdown that clinched the game.
"With Michael and Derrick there, it leaves a lot of separation for me," Lewis said. "We knew going into the game that some of their coverage might allow me to be open across the middle. Vinny made some really great reads."
Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis also made a good move. Instead of staying with a straight 4-3 look, the Ravens sometimes moved Jones or Webster over the top of Oilers 263-pound center Mark Stepnoski. That helped shut down the Oilers' running game.
"We felt going in that Stepnoski did a great job getting on linebackers so we wanted to keep him off Ray [Lewis, middle linebacker, who had seven tackles]," Jones said. "They have a good and physical offensive line. If you can hold your own, then you have done a pretty good job and have a pretty good chance of winning."
The Ravens gave up a 36-yard touchdown catch by H-back Frank Wycheck with 4: 01 left in the first quarter, and then a 45-yard field goal by Al Del Greco late in the second quarter to bring the Oilers within 17-10 at the half.
But the Oilers had no offense in the second half, when they had to rely on quarterback Steve McNair's arm. McNair finished with 199 yards passing by completing 20 of 33 passes, but showed no signs of being able to rally the Oilers.
That brings up an interesting point: Why did Oilers coach Jeff Fisher come out throwing instead of going with running back Eddie George, who had rushed for 216 and 106 yards in his first two games?
"Our plan was to open the offense up," said Fisher, after George was limited to 40 yards on just 10 carries. "We wanted to use some play-action passes and do some things off our running game. But we got behind and got away from our game plan. Since I've been coach, this is the most decisive loss we have suffered."
Said Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda: "He opened up with the passes and it worked, so you can't fault him. It was a good victory and a big win for us. We are 3-1 at the quarter poll, and I'm very happy with that."