North leaders? Ravens fans can enjoy ride while it lasts

October 07, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

CLEVELAND - The Ravens are in first place in the AFC North.

Go ahead, say it again. Let it roll off your lips like butter.

The Ravens are in first place in the AFC North. Most of us thought we wouldn't hear that again for another two or three years, but that day is already here.

It may only be four games into the 2002 season, but who cares? No one - absolutely no one - thought the Ravens would be in first place at this point in the season.

Is the AFC North a sorry division? Absolutely. Is Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart possibly the biggest enigma in the league? Yes. Is Steelers coach Bill Cowher a choker? Without question.

How about Cleveland? The Browns can't play long ball anymore with quarterback Tim Couch. Maybe there is some truth to his having arm problems.

And Cincinnati? Oh, please.

Let's move on.

The bottom line is that the Ravens are in first place in the AFC North.

A team with 17 rookies, 11 new starters, a new defensive coordinator, a new linebackers coach, a new secondary coach and a new quarterbacks coach went into hostile territory last night and beat up on the Cleveland Browns in The House That Art Built, otherwise known as Cleveland Browns Stadium.

The Browns scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to make the game close, but here is the final score: Ravens 26, Cleveland 21 before a frustrated crowd of 73,688.

There are a lot of Ravens fans who might think they are dreaming this morning, but the pinch won't come for at least another week, maybe two. Until then, take tomorrow off. Or possibly a week. Sit back, kick up your feet, smile and say it a few more times:

The Ravens are in first place in the AFC North.

"Right now, we're a quarter way through, and to be on the top of the division, I'll take it," said coach Brian Billick. "The maturity these kids have shown, the way they have come together, yeah, yeah, I have to be a bit surprised. The league is a constant surprise."

Billick has to be in another galaxy now. If nothing more, this season may be his most interesting. It has to be frustrating at times to nurse a bunch of young players, then all of sudden to find them playing well.


"I get up in the morning and get in the classroom and teach," Billick said. "I go out in the afternoon on the football field with a bunch of young guys. I spend my nights looking at film and playing the chess match that this game is. Life is good for me."

Will it last? No one knows. But until it ends, enjoy the ride and see where it goes.

You have to admire the Ravens' effort last night because this was an ambush game. The Ravens (2-2) played an emotional game last week on Monday Night Football when they upset the Denver Broncos, and then, after a short week of practice, had to travel to meet rival Cleveland.

And the Ravens responded with a good effort.

They led 13-0 at the half. In the first two quarters, they held the Browns to 68 yards of total offense and two first downs. Brandon Stokley caught a 30-yard touchdown pass with 9:51 left in the second quarter to give his team a 7-0 lead, and Matt Stover converted field goals of 43 and 28 yards to give the Ravens their lead at the half.

And with the way the Ravens' defense has played, that was all they needed. With a big lead, the team doesn't have to rely on quarterback Chris Redman (19-for-30 for 208 yards and two touchdowns) to carry the offense. It can just give the ball to running back Jamal Lewis (187 yards rushing on 26 attempts) and let Ray Lewis and Co. control the tempo of a game.

Earlier in the year, Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations, said to keep an eye on the fourth and fifth game of the season because that's when some of the team's impact players would start to emerge.

He was right.

Second-year cornerback Gary Baxter is breaking much better on the ball. Safety Ed Reed, the No. 1 draft pick, isn't hesitating and is flying to ball carriers in run support. Second-year tight end Todd Heap has become the Ravens' go-to guy on offense.

Stokley answered Billick's wake-up call from last week and, finally, after three years, the Ravens have put together a decent offensive line so that the quarterback isn't pressured on two of every three passing attempts.

Another good sign has been defensive end Michael McCrary, whose play has improved in the past two weeks along with his knee and conditioning.

And then there is Ray Lewis. In the past two weeks, his play has been on the same level as in the postseason of 2000, when the Ravens made their Super Bowl run. He was out on the field last night diving, colliding and making all kinds of big plays. An interception here. A stripped ball and fumble recovery there.

Part of the reason Cleveland had 21 points in the fourth quarter was that he was on the bench with a left-shoulder strain.

The Ravens are glad to hitch a ride, though. Thus far, it has taken them to first place. They are only at the quarter pole of the season, and a lot can happen. It probably will. With so many young players, they are bound to hit a wall. Hopefully, they won't all hit it at the same time.

"Obviously, this division is going to be nip and tuck," Billick said. "That is their big challenge. If we are fortunate enough to be around this thing for a while, as the others teams in the AFC North are going to be, it's going to come down to who can hold up emotionally in November and December. That takes a certain amount of maturity, and they are going to have to grow up quickly."

But until then, have some fun with this: The Ravens are in first place. Say it one more time. A one and a two and a three ...

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