Rivalry comes last

winning 1st

September 26, 1999|By John Eisenberg

It would be a terrific story if the Ravens wanted to win today because their fans have a rivalry with Cleveland's fans, or because a loss to the Browns at Camden Yards would devastate Ravens owner Art Modell, or because of motivations stemming from any of the game's many delicious subplots.

But the reality is that the Ravens want to win today for a more elemental reason having nothing to do with Modell, Cleveland, the Browns, fans, paybacks, irony or any of the game's extraneous issues.

The Ravens want to win because they're 0-2 and playing at home against a winless expansion team.

Their real motivation today is that their season will go up in flames if they lose.

Oh, yeah, that.

"We don't need [to be playing the Browns] to make the game extremely important," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

All the other stuff is fun to shout about and gives the game a rich backdrop, but let's face it, the game is more of a holy war for the Browns, whose fans probably would settle for a 1-15 season as long as that one win was over Modell, the owner who skipped town with their beloved franchise.

Sure, it's also a special game in Baltimore, but at this point, with the Ravens winless after playing two games they easily could have won, any extra incentives pale next to the basic one: winning a game, period.

It certainly would help stabilize a team with a head coach who has never won a game, a new starting quarterback who has thrown one touchdown pass in five years and an overall franchise record of 16-33-1.

Obviously, the Ravens need to start getting their act together, regardless of whom they're playing.

It's hard to say who needs the win more, Billick, new quarterback Stoney Case or the front office that put together the team and talked about contending for the playoffs.

Let's just say they all need it. Badly.

And what they don't need is a loss. Not today, of all days.

A loss -- to a team outscored 69-9 so far -- not only would be a supreme embarrassment, but also would leave the Ravens at 0-3 heading into a two-game road trip to Atlanta and Tennessee. That would make 0-5 a real possibility, even though the Falcons have injuries and the Titans aren't unbeatable.

An 0-5 start anchored by a home loss to the Browns would pretty much end the Ravens' season and eliminate any chance of them establishing a stronger foothold in a city that's still owned by -- but also disgusted by -- the Orioles.

Playing a home game against the Browns in Week 3 amounts to an insurance policy against such a disastrous start. The Ravens can't afford to waste it.

They're favored by 12 points, so things look good. But the odds are more of a reflection on the Browns, who lost by 43 to a Pittsburgh team that beat the Ravens by a field goal at the final gun last week.

Against almost any other team, the Ravens would be underdogs today. Only because it's 0-2 vs. 0-2 (expansion) are they favored.

Not that this is just a normal game between winless teams. There's a sea of subplots guaranteed to liven up the afternoon.

There's the Cleveland vs. Baltimore angle, starring the scorned fans in both cities as they try to drown each other out while peeling off their shirts and comparing scars of heartbreak. ("Mine is bigger, nyah, nyah.")

There's the Modell vs. Al Lerner angle, starring the former friends and business associates, now rival owners, who can't decide whether to shake hands and make up or bop each other on the head with seat cushions.

There's the Billick vs. Chris Palmer angle, starring the two hot head-coaching candidates from last winter, with each now intent on proving he's the smarter one.

Finally, there's the uniform exchange angle, starring the five former Browns now playing for the Ravens, and former Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown, who hasn't stopped ripping Baltimore and the Ravens since signing with the Browns last winter.

"This is going to be a good rivalry for obvious reasons,'" Billick said. "I think it's going to be intense." But more intense for the Browns than the Ravens. "It's like when the Ravens played the Colts [in 1996 and last year]," Billick said. "It was a bigger deal here than there."

Sure, this one is still big here, especially for the fans, Modell and even some of the players.

But it's bigger, in the end, for other reasons.

Because the Ravens don't want to go 0-3, raising the possibility of a lost season.

Because they don't want to be the first team to lose to the "new" Browns, especially at home.

After last week, the issue of whether the Ravens can beat the Browns seems trivial compared with the issue of whether the Ravens can get all 11 men on the field with the game on the line in the fourth quarter.

Oh, yeah, that.

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