Browns get 2nd crack at foiling J. Lewis

If they beat Bengals, short day looms for back bidding for 2,000-plus

December 23, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The Cleveland Browns may be able to slow down Jamal Lewis this season, after all.

If the Browns pull an upset win in Cincinnati on Sunday afternoon, the Ravens would clinch the AFC North title a few hours before their night game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

There would be nothing at stake for the Ravens in the regular-season finale since they would be locked in as the AFC's fourth seed.

Under those circumstances - which would include the Browns helping out Art Modell in his final season as Ravens owner - coach Brian Billick said Lewis' chase for two milestones probably would be cut short to avoid injury and save his running back's legs for the playoffs.

Coming off a 205-yard rushing performance in Sunday's 35-0 rout of the Browns, Lewis is 48 yards short of becoming the fifth running back in NFL history to reach 2,000 and is 154 yards shy of breaking the league's single-season mark.

"We'll adjust to the flow of the game," Billick said. "If Cleveland wins, I'm not going to say `Jamal, you're not playing.' Will I adjust based on the nature of the game more readily? Sure. Just like the game in Cleveland, I'll judge when it comes to pull him. Obviously, I would have a quicker hook if the situation were different."

If the playoffs started today, the Ravens would play host to the fifth-seeded Tennessee Titans in a wild-card game. The winner would then travel to the top-seeded New England Patriots for a likely night game on Jan. 10.

Despite a tough road ahead, Billick said the Ravens would not treat their game against Pittsburgh like a bye if they have already secured the franchise's first division title. All of the Ravens' starters - including Lewis - would play, regardless of the outcome of the Bengals-Browns.

"You can't prepare emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally to go in a game and, in the 11th hour, tell a team this game we don't need," Billick said. "You can't do that to a team. The repercussions for that going into that playoff game is not worth it. Sunday night is on."

The Ravens have kept a close eye on Lewis' carries all year, and Billick has used a computer program to project Lewis' total rushes for the season in order to keep him under 400 carries.

But Lewis, who has 360 carries this season (second most in the NFL), won't be monitored Sunday if the playoffs are on the line.

"Now, the gloves come off," Billick said. "If you got to run 50 times on Sunday to win, he'll run 50 times. We're going to need every bit of what number he needs to get the record - whether it's 2,000 or up - to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers."

In three starts, Lewis has averaged 71 yards rushing against Pittsburgh. The Steelers rank 11th in the NFL in run defense and have held teams to an average of 107.5 yards rushing.

The Ravens expect Pittsburgh to do everything in its power to stop Lewis from joining Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis and O.J. Simpson in the 2,000-yard club.

"I'll be surprised if they put anybody out on the wide receivers," Billick said. "You talk about eight or nine in the box, we'll probably have 11 in the box."

Lewis will share the spotlight with Modell, who will watch his final regular-season game as an NFL owner. After completing his 43rd year in the league, he will sell the team to Steve Bisciotti.

To commemorate Modell's legacy, the Ravens will induct him into their "Ring of Honor" in a halftime ceremony.

Like most fans, Modell is more concerned about whether the Ravens will beat Pittsburgh to win the division and whether Lewis will have a historic night. Modell called Lewis yesterday to congratulate him on his season, telling him that he brought back memories of Jim Brown, another one of his former running backs.

"His explosion, his speed and his ability to hit the hole is reminiscent of Jim," Modell said. "He's an extraordinarily gifted football player. I hope he does the same thing this Sunday."

Lewis was a big reason why the Ravens rolled past the Browns on Sunday, which marked the final time Modell fielded a team in Cleveland. Modell, 78, owned the Browns for 34 years before relocating the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season.

"[The win in Cleveland] didn't mean anything more than the season-opening game in Pittsburgh," Modell said. "You don't carry emotions on your sleeve. I had a good run, and I'm very proud of my record."

Modell said he had to move the team because he could not survive financially at the dilapidated Cleveland Municipal Stadium though he'd been vilified there ever since. Billick said Browns fans should redirect their anger at the politicians who forced the relocation by not renovating the stadium.

"All that the Modells did for that city for 40 years, for that to be swept aside is not right," Billick said. "Particularly when it came at the hands of, my opinion, a bunch of scam artists. Eventually, that's going to come to light."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (9-6) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-9)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

When: Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13, ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 7 1/2

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