CLEVELAND - Four seasons ago, the Cleveland Browns played a nationally televised game on Sunday night and learned exactly where the franchise stood.
It was a 43-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that drove home the point that the Browns were a long way from contending. The coach at the time, Chris Palmer, benched his starting quarterback, Ty Detmer, and chose to go with all younger players in the building process.
After what the Ravens did to the Browns in their second foray last night, the team may again find itself at a crossroads.
The Ravens' 26-21 victory not only stripped the Browns of their precarious AFC North Division lead, but it also likely will leave them doing some serious soul searching.
It was supposed to be "Orange Pride Night" at Cleveland Browns Stadium, where coach Butch Davis encouraged the fans to be extra rowdy for the national television audience and all fans were asked to wear orange.
Instead, the crowd ended up booing rookie running back William Green, who finished with 2 yards on four carries, every time he touched the ball and cheering when franchise quarterback Tim Couch was lifted for backup Kelly Holcomb because of an injury.
Three fourth-quarter touchdowns after Ray Lewis left the game with a shoulder injury aside, it was the Ravens who looked more like the playoff contender and the Browns who looked like the team in need of more rebuilding.
Even though he led the Browns to a 31-28 comeback overtime victory at Tennessee in his first start two weeks ago, Couch found himself under pressure. Holcomb played well in the first two weeks of the season when Couch was out with torn tissue in his elbow.
Couch then had a rather average performance in a 16-13 overtime loss to the Steelers in his second start. Last night, he threw two interceptions before leaving the game with a mild concussion.
Holcomb entered the game and led the team on two scoring drives to cheers from the fans. It will likely add to the brewing quarterback controversy, even though Couch did throw for 216 yards. The fans' reaction infuriated Couch.
"I've been in this city for four years, laying it all on the line. For [the fans] to turn on me is a joke," a teary-eyed Couch said. "I'm lying there hurt and [the fans] are cheering."
When asked to assess Couch's play, Davis simply said, "I'll have to review the film."
The team's already maligned defense also took a beating. Jamal Lewis' 187 rushing yards marked the third time in five games the Browns allowed a 100-yard rusher. That was an area the team desperately tried to improve in the offseason, signing high-priced run-stopping free agents Kenard Lang and Earl Holmes after finishing 29th against the run in 2001.
And after holding Eddie George and Jerome Bettis to a combined 70 yards on the ground in the previous two games, the Browns let the Ravens gain 201 rushing yards.
Cleveland's nerves will be tested in the now hotly contested division.
"This [division] is going to come down to who holds it together emotionally," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Especially in November and December."
The Browns come to Ravens Stadium on Dec. 22.