After 15 games, real Ravens still a mystery

Ravens 35, Browns 0

Nfl Week 16

December 22, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

CLEVELAND - After 15 games, including yesterday's 35-0 win against the Cleveland Browns, the consensus in the Ravens' locker room is that the real Ravens haven't reached a level of consistency yet.

Who are the real Ravens? No one quite knows yet.

The Ravens have been one of the league's biggest bunch of trash talkers throughout the season, and yesterday they had the opportunity to spit out a couple of tons, but there was none.

Cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Gary Baxter were reserved. Linebacker Ray Lewis also was quiet. Even cornerback Corey Fuller was subdued. The third-youngest team in the NFL is still trying to find itself.

The Ravens have a big question to answer in the season finale next week against Pittsburgh in Baltimore, which likely will decide the AFC North championship: Which Ravens team will show up? Will it be the one that suffered the meltdown against the Oakland Raiders eight days ago, or the one that kicked around the Browns yesterday?

If the Ravens win, they're in the playoffs. If they lose and Cincinnati beats the Browns at home, then the Bengals go.

"I believe it will be the one that showed up today," said Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. "I don't see why it shouldn't be. When we have games like today, where we didn't turn the ball over and we get big plays on the ground, we tend to win those games.

"Now, we're coming home. We'll have the fans behind us, and we've got to get it done. We haven't beat them [Steelers] at home since like 1996. We made a big step today. We shut out Cleveland. I think we all understand the importance."

It's been an emotional roller coaster for Ravens fans this season. The team has played on the level with some of the league's top teams, such as Kansas City and St. Louis, and stunk it up against the Steelers and Bengals.

The Ravens seemed to reach a low point in back-to-back losses against St. Louis and Miami in games 9 and 10, but seemed to hit their stride with a three-game winning streak against Seattle, San Francisco and Cincinnati.

But then came the loss to the Raiders.

"I think we need that sense of urgency," Fuller said. "It was missing. At times, we might feel a little off, get a little too relaxed."

Said Baxter: "We've got a lot riding on the line right now. We're going to play for the division title next week, everybody knows that's going to be a big game. Today was a steppingstone, and we move on. We've had our spurts of good times, we've had our ups and downs. The thing we have to do is stay consistent. From here on out, we've got to play lights out."

Maybe the Ravens were so subdued because they realize the Browns (4-11) are so bad. Cleveland has receivers that can't catch, an offensive line that is down to one original starter because of injuries and players that quit after running back Jamal Lewis scored on a 72-yard touchdown run with 6:14 left in the third quarter that put the Ravens ahead 14-0.

Morale is so low that there reportedly was a fight between receiver Quincy Morgan and cornerback Robert Griffith on Friday afternoon. There is speculation that coach Butch Davis might get fired soon after the regular season.

Despite all of Cleveland's problems, though, the Ravens came here and took care of business. It wasn't pretty. They were tight for nearly three quarters. But the Ravens' defense pitched a shutout and held the Browns to 211 yards of total offense. The Ravens scored 21 points off three turnovers.

Just as importantly, the Ravens' coaching staff didn't panic when Lewis had only 41 yards rushing on 14 carries in the first half. There was the usual poor time management near the end of the first half and another poor call on third-and-one at the Ravens' 43 with 9:46 left in the half, but the Ravens continued to shove Lewis (205 yards rushing) at the Browns.

If Lewis, who needs 154 yards to break the NFL's single-season rushing mark, sets the record, he should take the entire Cleveland defense out to dinner.

When the Ravens are playing well, they aren't fun to watch. They bore you to death with the running game and a defense that keeps the opponent's offense off the field. Against poor teams, the Ravens can grind out long drives.

But can they continue that against a Pittsburgh team that has struggled this season, but owns the Ravens in the series (12-4)?

Steelers coach Bill Cowher has won so often in Baltimore, they should name M&T Bank Stadium after him. He even beat the Ravens in the stadium's opening game.

If there was a downside to yesterday's win, Ravens quarterback Anthony Wright had another subpar performance. It wasn't just because he completed 10 of 18 passes for 90 yards, but also because of poor decision-making on when to throw the ball away, or when to take a sack.

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