Eisenberg: Steelers Game Not Armageddon


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?John Eisenberg

The reality is the Ravens could lose Sunday and still get where they want to go this season.

Remember a year ago? The Ravens went to Pittsburgh early in the season and won on a late touchdown, seemingly exorcising a few demons. But that uplifting triumph was trumped when the Steelers won the regular-season rematch and then a playoff game as well. That "pivotal" early victory meant nothing in the end.

The moral? It's a looong season, folks. Check the calendar. Super Bowl XLVI is set for Feb. 5, 2012, five months from now. Five months!

With so much football to be played before then, how the Ravens fare in September is not nearly as important as how they fare later, when the playoffs draw closer.

Teams change significantly from week 1 through the fall and into the winter. In fact, how much they improve can pretty much determine the success or failure of many teams' seasons.

The Green Bay Packers split their first six games a year ago and barely made the NFC playoff field as the last seed. But then they ran through four wins, beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl.

It was how they finished that mattered, not how they started.

That axiom holds especially true for the Ravens and many other teams this season in the wake of a lockout that killed the offseason and hurried the run-up to this weekend's opener. Teams that have new coaches or new schemes are still in "install" mode. They're just going to hope for the best early on and count on improving during the season.

The Ravens have enough newness to them that they're plainly still in transition as the season begins. They're young at tight end, cornerback, nose tackle and elsewhere. Their downfield threat is new to the team. They're hoping for increased contributions from various young players (Sergio Kindle? Jimmy Smith?) as the season progresses. Their starting offensive line has never played a down together.

"It's not an ideal situation," center Matt Birk said Monday about the fact that the line would be taking chemistry issues into the regular season.

A fair goal for the line is to expect it to be humming by, say, mid-October, after the team's week 5 bye. A fair goal for the team is to expect it to be humming by, say, November.

Obviously, the Ravens need to win enough as they go along, while they're trying to get themselves together, that they stay in the playoff hunt and give themselves a shot late in the season. If they lose too many early games, they're sunk. Beating Pittsburgh Sunday would help.

But the Ravens who take the field in November and December could be decidedly different from the Ravens who take on the Steelers this Sunday. Winning the opener would certainly provide a short-term boost, but it's where the team goes from here that really matters.

John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*

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