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Spotlight shines bright on Dilfer

After a prolific stretch, the Ravens offense again has struggled with the former Bucs QB at the helm.

If nothing else, Trent Dilfer is becoming more efficient.

During his stay in Tampa Bay, Dilfer went from phenom to the Pro Bowl to a fading bust in little more than six seasons.

In Baltimore, Dilfer has managed to plot a similar course in barely eight weeks.

Dilfer can rightfully claim credit as one of the main reasons Baltimore hosts a playoff game today for the first time in 23 years. The team was fading fast and the offense going nowhere when Dilfer took over as quarterback at midseason, triggering a stretch of seven victories in eight games.

But as the Ravens meet Denver in an AFC wild-card game, the offense is in a funk, and there is talk Tony Banks could show up at quarterback if Dilfer struggles early.

"When you get into the playoffs, you are going to do anything you can to win the game," Ravens coach Brian Billick said about a scenario in which Banks would replace Dilfer.

"The things we have done the last two weeks, there are a number of things we have to do better. Some things are not as bad as they appear. Trent knows that there are certain things he needs to do better, and the guys around him need to do better."

Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, who won two Super Bowls with Denver, was more direct with his analysis.

"If we play like we did (Sunday) we will get blown out. We will get beat real bad. Whatever we need to do, we need to get it fixed in a hurry," Sharpe told the Baltimore Sun after the Ravens beat the Jets Sunday. "In the playoffs, if you have a weakness, teams will exploit it. They'll be champing at the bit because, obviously, we showed a lot of weaknesses."

This is not the first time Baltimore's offense struggled this season. It went 0-for-October in touchdowns but survived because a record-setting defense gave up the fewest points ever in a 16-game NFL season.

And the recent offensive stench is not Dilfer's responsibility alone. Pass protection has been atrocious, and the running game disappeared last week.

Dilfer's response should sound similar to Buccaneers fans. Which should probably concern Ravens fans. Dilfer said the results _ victories _ make the other factors less important.

"It's not been as good as you'd like it to be, but we've always won," Dilfer said of recent performances. "You have to look at the positives."

What Dilfer's explanation fails to address is that Baltimore's defense and special teams were responsible for the victory over the Jets. The special teams and defense scored 21 points in the 34-20 victory that clinched today's home-field advantage.

The offense gained a franchise-record-low 142 yards against New York, continuing a trend begun two weeks earlier. The problem has been a lack of a downfield passing. Dilfer has completed just one pass of more than 30 yards in the past four games.

"I've said since Day 1, prior to the seven wins that we've ripped off, that no matter how well we run the ball, if we don't have a certain vertical aspect of the passing game and hit plays down the field, we are not going to last long in the playoffs. No team will," Billick said. "We have to find that offensive formula better than we did on Sunday."

The Ravens certainly will get a chance to test their vertical passing game today. The Broncos have played a high-risk defense, stacking the line of scrimmage with bodies and challenging teams to throw into man-to-man coverage. Denver has surrendered more passing yards than any team in the NFL but is second in interceptions.

If Denver focuses on stopping rookie running back Jamal Lewis, the game could rest in Dilfer's somewhat shaky hands.

"There are obviously frustrations around here with the offense's performance," Dilfer said. "If we don't start fast, it is going to be a real challenge to maintain our poise and continue to play well throughout the game. I think we will be tested if that happens. Our mental toughness will be tested; our ability to overcome difficult situations.

"If it happens, we have to live up to the challenge."