Role reversals paint picture of confusion

Browns 20, Ravens 3

September 13, 2004|By David Steele

CLEVELAND - Hold on a second. Which was supposed to be the Super Bowl contender and which was the also-ran?

Which was the team talking all the talk and which one was supposed to walk the walk?

Which one had the defense that was aiming to make history and which one was desperately trying to avoid infamy?

Which quarterback was champing at the bit to be unleashed and which was under the gun to prove himself?

The similarities between the Ravens and the Browns in yesterday's season opener were numerous and disturbing, at least to those who expect the Ravens to play deep into January. One trait in particular was very familiar: bringing a good game verbally, then bringing an even better one onto the field.

Browns linebacker Andra Davis put it a little less diplomatically after his team had flipped the script on the Ravens, 20-3. When asked what was said during the coin toss, when he and his fellow captains exchanged yaps with the Ravens captains, Davis shot back: "It doesn't matter what they were saying. What are they saying now? Are they trying to explain what happened today?"

If the Ravens can't count on winning even that battle, they've got bigger problems than the ones unveiled yesterday. As it stands - with a mere 15 games to go, of course - they're a stride behind the Browns, who going into the game appeared to be a stride behind almost everybody in the AFC, certainly every other North Division team.

But this time, everything the Ravens do well, the Browns did better, and everything the Browns do poorly, the Ravens did worse.

In other words, if Kyle Boller and Co. couldn't top what little Jeff Garcia and his cohorts could produce, can anyone feel comfortable about out-producing Tommy Maddox and Carson Palmer?

They and their teams complete the first trip through the division and do so in the next two weeks. Expect them to be met with brutal force by the Ravens' D. At this rate, also expect them to still have a chance late in the game as long as they follow the blueprint drawn up by the Browns yesterday.

The offense can take itself right out of the game. The defense can be worn down. The voices can be silenced. The edge can be taken away.

Granted, the Browns had motivation for this game. The defense wanted retribution after its twin debacles against Jamal Lewis last season. Garcia wanted redemption after stinking up M&T Bank Stadium last November while still a 49er.

Motivation is wonderful. Tackling and completing passes are better. The Browns' defense couldn't do its job in the first post-record faceoff with Lewis last December, and Garcia couldn't get it done in the first half yesterday.

The Browns insisted they entered the game brimming with unprecedented confidence from a number of sources, including their own boasting and the presence of the 1964 NFL title team being honored all weekend. None of it would have made a difference, however, had the Ravens not fed that confidence with their slipshod play.

And this is not about the two secondary breakdowns that jump-started the Browns in the second half - not that much, at least. Offensive breakdowns made those mistakes possible, and devastating. As noted earlier in the week, this game was tailor-made for Boller to send a message to the rest of the NFL. Oh, did the NFL ever get the message.

The Browns dared him to make the throws they were giving him, dared him in their pre-game comments and dared him on the field with their alignments, designed to shut down Lewis and risk getting beaten downfield.

It took exactly two series for the Ravens to show how ready they were to take on that dare. One third-and-1 play on their only trip into Browns territory in the first half. One overthrow inside the 10 to Travis Taylor, who had his lone defender beaten deep.

It wasn't the first time Boller had shown an alarming lack of touch on a pass of any type, but this one hurt. Yes, nearly another quarter would pass before the Browns would score. Still, the pressure on the defense only grew; obviously, it couldn't make a mistake now. When it did, it paid for it.

And the offense followed with a handful more of its own. The injuries up front couldn't be masked. The inability to make the Browns' defense pay for its hubris grew more glaring.

"I do not think that Kyle Boller was the reason we did not win today," coach Brian Billick insisted.

Boller didn't do anything to help them win, though.

Suddenly, the big-mouth Browns looked like prophets. They were able to talk about wearing down and, essentially, pushing around the Ravens' defense.

For nearly three quarters, Boller and Garcia generated numbing exchanges of dump-offs and misfires, Boller excelling at the overthrow, Garcia at the short hop. Both seemed incapable of a big strike, even though they were being presented chances constantly.

Garcia finally connected on two of his. Boller couldn't respond - actually, he responded the opposite way, with an interception, then a sack, then a fumble, then another interception. That was the game.

"We wouldn't be sitting here talking about a win," Garcia said, "if we didn't have a defense that just went out there and took control of this game."

He's not the quarterback who should have been saying that.

But there were lots of ways these two teams got mixed up yesterday. And if the football world confuses the Ravens with the Browns much longer, then the plans for Jacksonville in February had better be put on hold.

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