Exhilarating AFC North ride plummets

Each division foe highlights more weaknesses

Analysis

Ravens Gameday

November 12, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN REPORTER

The AFC North is no longer the Ravens' private amusement park.

No Ferris wheels in Pittsburgh to gaze from after sticking it to the Steelers, no teacup rides in Cleveland to giddily spin in with endless delight after crunching the Browns, no midway filled with little stuffed Cincinnati Bengals to shove in the trunk on the happy trip home.

That park is boarded up, with a sign that reads, "Closed for the season. See you in 2008 (Or later)."

The good times ended weeks ago - was it in Cleveland in September or in Pittsburgh last Monday night? The gates were chained shut for good last night at M&T Bank Stadium after a depressing 21-7 loss to a now 3-6 Bengals team that had won only once in seven games since beating the Ravens in the season opener.

Truth to be told, the rides had long since emptied, the chatter and laughter that had once filled the park long since silenced. A team that had cleaned up in the division last year - losing only once and winning by a whopping five games - will be lucky to win once this year.

Since the Browns were reinvented in 1996, three years after Art Modell left Cleveland for Baltimore, the Ravens have never won fewer than two divisional games in a season. Even in 1999, an 8-8 Ravens team went 6-4 against what was then a six-team AFC Central.

"I think teams probably do get extra gratification out of beating us," Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said as he walked out of the dressing room last night. "After what we did [in the division] last year, they probably can't wait to play us."

While the home team's locker room at Heinz Field was filled with more than mere fighting words from Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward and his celebrating teammates after their 38-7 demolition of the Ravens a week ago, the visiting dressing room was filled with relief.

"To be honest with you, it's just fun to win a game the way we've been going," Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "We haven't had a victory in a while. You almost forget how it feels to win."

Even the normally effusive - OK, obnoxiously garrulous - Chad Johnson didn't seem to get any extra pleasure at shutting up his good buddy, Ray Lewis.

"We're trying to get ourselves back in it," Johnson said. "It was cool."

What has happened this season is not just that the Ravens are in free fall from a magical 13-3 ride that ended abruptly in their first playoff game, but that the Steelers have been rejuvenated under new coach Mike Tomlin and the Browns revived behind quarterback Derek Anderson, a Ravens draft pick.

Veteran offensive guard Bobbie Williams, in his fourth season with the Bengals and his eighth in the NFL, might have said it best.

"They're going against a lot of good teams, each year everybody is getting better, nobody is going to stay the same," Johnson said. "They were pretty dominant for a couple of years ... the bar is steadily raising. If you don't get better, you're going to get left behind."

Each of Baltimore's division opponents has used another's success as a blueprint this season.

If the Bengals showed the rest of the division how to beat up on aging Ravens quarterback Steve McNair in the first Monday Night Football game of the season, then the Browns exposed a once-impenetrable defense by beating a depleted secondary through the air.

And we all know what the Steelers did to the Ravens a week ago.

The Browns, coming to town Sunday on the heels of a frustrating down-to-the-gun loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field, can't wait to improve on their respectable 5-4 record against the 4-5 Ravens, who haven't beaten a team with a winning record this season.

By the time the Steelers visit on Dec. 30, M&T Bank Stadium might look more like a ghost town than a boarded-up amusement park.

Those teacup rides were a blast.

don.markus@baltsun.com

DIVISION STRUGGLES

With yesterday's 21-7 loss to the Bengals, the Ravens are 0-4 in division games. Since the NFL realigned the divisions before the 2002 season, the Ravens had finished below .500 in the division only once.

Season ............. W-L

2002 ...................3-3

2003 ..................4-2

2004 ................... 3-3

2005 .................. 2-4

2006 ...................5-1

2007 ................... 0-4

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