CLEVELAND - The Ravens' future in the division will take shape with a step into their past.
Opening their most important stretch of their season, the Ravens play six straight games against AFC Central opponents, starting with their annual return to their roots to battle the Cleveland Browns today at 1 p.m.
The logjam in the division - with three teams within a half game of the first-place Pittsburgh Steelers - has the Ravens (3-2) surprisingly sitting eye-to-eye with the upstart Browns (3-2).
In the previous two seasons, the drama of playing the fledgling Browns was based on the franchises' ties off the field. Now, it's the initial stage in the Ravens' decisive six-week run within the AFC Central.
"We'll get to see if we're for real or if we're pretenders," tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "We get an opportunity to put some distance between ourselves because we get a chance to put all these teams behind us. I think this is great for us. This is a true test and we don't have to look down the road and wait until December to see where we stand."
The tone of this stretch can be established today.
Are these the Ravens that made a statement in victories over Denver and Tennessee? Or are they the ones that couldn't hold onto the ball in losses at Cincinnati and Green Bay?
The Browns, who are off to their best start since Art Modell was their owner in 1995, have some added motivation, too.
"We got a team [in the Browns] that's hungry and eager to show that they're contenders," Sharpe said. "We're eager to show that we have not lost anything."
Besides the Ravens' return to Cleveland, there's another homecoming as well.
Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac, who grew up in Cleveland and lives there in the off-season, will play in his hometown for the first time in his nine-year NFL career. Although he's never thrown a pass inside Cleveland Browns Stadium, he has become familiar with its Dawg Pound from some friends at home.
"There's been a few phone messages with dog barks on them," Grbac said.
These days, Grbac can find time to laugh. After suffering a concussion and a sprained neck last Sunday, he indicated that he has fully recovered and has been removed from the injury report.
With health not a factor, Grbac's concentration has shifted to his consistency.
In the Ravens' three victories, he completed 62 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and one interception. In their two losses, he connected on 52 percent of his throws along with five interceptions and two fumbles.
"You have to know when to [throw the ball] and when you don't have to," Grbac said. "As a quarterback, there's always a fine line. You make a couple of plays here or there, you know you're the greatest thing. But if you throw a couple of interceptions, you're not making the right decisions."
The Browns' defense, which ranks fourth in the league against the pass, will test Grbac.
Always keeping a safety in the middle of the field, Cleveland has allowed only one touchdown through the air in its last nine quarters and has surrendered only two throws over 26 yards this season. Time in the pocket shouldn't be a problem for Grbac since injuries won't allow the Browns to start their top two defensive ends, Courtney Brown and Keith McKenzie.
"Will we get a big play on them? I think it's really got to be a catch, break a tackle and then go," Grbac said. "Their defensive philosophy is: Can an offense be patient enough to move the ball down the field in small chunks? That's what they're banking on."
The Ravens' defense won't have such a passive attitude.
Last Sunday, the Ravens gave up four touchdowns to the Packers, the most allowed by their defense in 44 games. The embarrassment delivered by Green Bay has turned into anger toward the Browns.
"We're not a young bunch of guys who're going to say, `That's our season, it's over, let's pack it in,' " defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said. "Nah, you're just going to tick us off and the next team is going to get a better game out of us."
The key will be if the Ravens can win the race to reach Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch.
The Browns' makeshift offensive line has allowed 16 sacks in five games, and Couch needed treatment on the sideline during last Sunday's game in Cincinnati after wobbling off the field in a 24-14 loss.
But Cleveland will likely counter with a spread offense that has become the vogue attack against the Ravens. That strategy could save some pounding on Couch, who would be forced to make short dropbacks and quick reads.
"Nothing will surprise us," linebacker Peter Boulware said. "A lot of teams have done it and think they can do it. We'll be prepared for it."
The Ravens also have made preparations for the road ahead.
During this six-week span inside the division, they will travel four times, with the AFC Central lead as their planned destination.
"The fact that all these division games are all clumped together and so many of them are on the road, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to look at the schedule and say, `Hey, this is going to be an important stretch,' " Ravens coach Brian Billick said.
"When we get to the end of this, we're all going to have a pretty good idea of what this division is going to look like."
Opponent: Cleveland Browns
Site: Cleveland Browns Stadium, Cleveland
Time: 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)
Line: Ravens by 7 1/2