Browns Are Next Hurdle, But Taller Ones Loom

November 12, 2009|By Peter Schmuck

If I hear the hyphenated adjective "must-win" attached to another Ravens game this year, I'm going to sever my other Achilles tendon and spend the rest of the NFL season watching another 100 "Gunsmoke" reruns on TV Land.

When the Ravens play the Cleveland Browns on national television Monday night, it's going to be about a lot more than just winning. It's going to be about self-esteem. It has to be the night they get their groove back.

Forget about the proverbial must-win situation - especially since they've already lost the last couple of times that term has been applied. This is a must-blow-out-that-awful-team situation. The Ravens have to regain their swagger before the short week leading up to next week's showdown with the Indianapolis Colts and their home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers after that.

Of course, they'll tell you that they can't look past the Browns, and they can't. They can't assume anything after getting bullied by the Cincinnati Bengals in their last two AFC North games ... except this:

They can assume that if they don't beat the Browns and look good doing it, their fans can stop fantasizing about the playoffs and send out a search party to look for the team that swept the preseason and won its first three regular-season games.

"We've got to win," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We've lost some big games, and we're two games back, and we've got to get hot. You're in a tough spot, and you didn't play well. Everybody's got to look at themselves. At the same time, you don't want to freak out."

The rest of us are way past that point. Nobody saw this coming. Nobody could have imagined after Week 3 that the Ravens would lose four of their next five games and be looking two games up at the Bengals on the wrong side of the tiebreaker. Now, they need to win six of their last eight regular-season games to get to 10 wins, and that will require at least one - and probably two - victories in the three games against the Colts and Steelers.

To make that happen will take more than just the usual one-game-at-a-time approach that football coaches are so obsessive about. It's going to take a team-wide mental makeover that has to start with a severe smack-down in Cleveland.

It's going to require all the swagger the Ravens can muster to re-establish themselves as the elite team that was ranked at the top of the ESPN.com and SI.com NFL power rankings five weeks ago.

That would appear to be a tall order, but the players in the Ravens' locker room Wednesday insisted that they still have it.

"I think you have to" have confidence, center Matt Birk said. "I don't think that you get to this level without having more confidence than most people do.

"Look around this locker room. Look at the names above these lockers. I think we can still play with anyone."

Except maybe Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, but that's ancient history now. The Ravens are expected to get Haloti Ngata back from injury Monday, though it would probably make more sense to hold him back for the Colts, even if that might give the false impression that they are looking past Cleveland.

This isn't about one game anymore. If any player is standing between the Ravens and a victory over the 1-7 Browns on Monday night, the season is already lost. This is about proving to themselves and that national cable television audience that they still have what it takes to be a Super Bowl contender.

If they can't do that fairly easily against the Browns - even without Ngata - they certainly aren't going to do it against Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.

This isn't the ultimate test, but it is a chance for the Ravens to rediscover their bad selves before this season slips away.

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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