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Renovation Complete Less than two years after gutting their Super Bowl roster, the Ravens are back in championship form


Last Saturday morning, as snow swirled outside their training
facility, a handful of Baltimore Ravens soaked in a 36° cold tub,
part of the hot-cold muscle-rejuvenation treatment some of the
players go through the day before a game. Tackle Jonathan Ogden
read a Michael Crichton novel, Prey. Linebacker Ray Lewis talked
about the Cincinnati Bengals, the next day's foe, almost as if
they were the prey. "Let's see what happens when we don't hand
them the game like we did the first time we played them this
year," Lewis said of Cincinnati's 34-26 win on Oct. 19. "They've
shown me nothin'."

The old Ravens bravado is back--not that it's been gone long. In
a matchup of the teams that shared the AFC North lead, Baltimore
whipped the Bengals 31-13, looking like the team that won the
Super Bowl in January 2001: strong running game (Jamal Lewis
rushed for 180 yards and three touchdowns), punishing defense
(six sacks and five forced turnovers) and the confidence of a
champion. "We control our own destiny," said Jamal Lewis. "All we
have to do is not turn the ball over, and we'll win."

The Ravens' 8-5 season defies all that we've learned about
football in the salary-cap era. Once a team starts an all-out
purge to address its salary-cap problem (see the 1999 Dallas
Cowboys), it's supposed to take at least two or three years to
become a winner again. But for Baltimore it's been just a little
more than a year. After spending $104.6 million on bonuses to
make title runs in 2000 and '01, the Ravens whacked 12 starters
before the 2002 season and then went 7-9. "It was scorched
earth," says coach Brian Billick. "And conventional wisdom said
Year 2 shouldn't have been much better."

If Baltimore goes on to win the division, general manager Ozzie
Newsome and his staff will deserve much of the credit. Of the 11
first-round picks Newsome has made since taking over the draft in
1996, eight were in Baltimore's starting lineup on Sunday. As for
the others, cornerback Duane Starks left for a big free-agent
contract with the Arizona Cardinals after the 2001 season, while
outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and quarterback Kyle Boller
figure prominently in the Ravens' future. Against the Bengals,
Suggs was terrific as a nickel pass rusher. His two sacks gave
him an NFL-rookie-high 10 for the year, and he forced one fumble
and recovered another.

But any savvy general manager knows his team is only as good as
the bargains he finds to fill out the roster. And 36 of the
Ravens' 53 active players were drafted in the fourth round or
lower, or were signed as low-priced free agents (undrafted out of
college or veterans making less than $1.5 million annually).
Baltimore had a league-high 19 rookies last year and eight in

"Everyone agreed to our plan, which was trying to win a Super
Bowl in 2000 and 2001, then taking our medicine in 2002," says
Newsome. "We could have stretched the cap and restructured a lot
of deals, but we'd seen enough teams trying to hold on: All you
do is fall deeper in the hole."

In the end Baltimore's playoff fate may rest on the shoulders of
one of the players Newsome rescued from the scrap heap,
quarterback Anthony Wright, who has a 3-1 record since taking
over for the injured Boller. Wright has been shaky--completing
53% of his attempts with seven touchdowns and five
interceptions--but what do you expect from a player who had been
cut by the quarterback-needy Pittsburgh Steelers and Cowboys? In
his second start as a Raven, on Nov. 23, Wright threw four
touchdown passes in a come-from-behind 44-41 overtime win over
the Seattle Seahawks. On Sunday he struggled while completing 8
of 19.

But if Wright minimizes his mistakes, the Ravens can execute
their game plan: Run the ball well, wreak havoc on defense, don't
give games away. Just as they did in 2000. --Peter King

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN IACONOMAIN MEN Ray Lewis (52) still anchors the defense, but Wright'snew to the chase.