AROUND THE AFC NORTH
When the Ravens play host to the Miami Dolphins in their regular-season finale, they will be fighting for the AFC's final playoff spot as well as for the pride of their team.
Losing four of their past five games -- the worst second-half collapse under coach Brian Billick's six-year watch -- has led to dissention in the locker room.
"It's not the same feeling," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "Maybe
because we're losing or maybe things aren't the way we wanted to coming off
high expectations of last year. (Maybe it's) not being able to follow up and
meet those expectations. Maybe that's got this locker room a little shifted."
In addition to beating the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, the Ravens (8-7) need Buffalo to lose to Pittsburgh, Denver to lose to Indianapolis and Jacksonville to either lose or tie with Oakland to clinch the AFC's final playoff spot. A win by either Buffalo, Denver or Jacksonville would end the Ravens' season.
Some of the Ravens' problems can be traced to a crack in their unity.
"It really used to be real loose and we used to have a lot of fun in here," McAlister said. "It used to be a lot of guys laughing and having a good time. It's not that same way. I've been here for six years and I remember coming in here and everybody moved around. Maybe because the old place was a lot smaller and this place is a little bigger. Now it's kind of like everybody stays in their own little corner."
Trouble surfaced earlier this month, when the Ravens lost a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter and fell to the Cincinnati Bengals. After that game, linebacker Ray Lewis questioned some of his teammates' passion.
"I don't know what got us to this point right now," McAlister said. "But I can only say we haven't played our best team football as a unit this year."
So, how do the Ravens change it?
"I don't know," McAlister said. "I'm not a psychologist."
Coach Brian Billick refuted any notions of dissention.
"I think you have a lot of frustrations in a situation this team hasn't been before," Billick said. "You have a lot of personal frustrations. This is something that this team is dealing with. There are frustrations and there are anxieties. But they're handling them collectively. They're practicing well. They're focused. And they have the right will and the right want."
Other players didn't share McAlister's opinion of the locker room.
"When we were 7-3, nobody was talking about dissention or separation in the locker room," DE Anthony Weaver said. "I just think whenever a team is losing, people try to look for an excuse. 'What's happening? Is there tension in the locker room?' I don't think that's the case at all.
"There might be a little bit of frustration coming out and the perception might be that there is tension and separation in the locker room. I don't think that's the case at all. We have a great bunch of guys. We've stuck together through it all and we're going to stick together through this."
But cornerback Gary Baxter admitted a changed atmosphere with the Ravens this week.
"It's a different feeling that we have to require on a lot of other teams to lose to get in," Baxter said. "You kind of tell the mood around here is a little sad. Guys aren't used to that. That's something that's new to the Ravens and the players."
SERIES HISTORY: Fifth meeting. The Miami Dolphins have won all four of the previous regular-season meetings. The Ravens won the only postseason matchup, beating the Dolphins, 20-3, in the 2001 playoffs. The last meeting came in Week 10 last season when three Ravens turnovers led to two Miami scores in a 9-6 overtime win for the Dolphins.
- The Ravens need to defeat the Miami Dolphins to make the playoffs in addition
to Buffalo losing to Pittsburgh, Denver losing to Indianapolis and Jacksonville
losing to Oakland.
Ravens coach Brian Billick expects the Steelers and Colts to play their starters even though both teams have secured their positions in the playoffs.
"I don't know how you would address a team and say, 'OK, you guys need to rest, you guys go fight like hell and win this game,' " Billick said. "They're going to play, they're going to be competitive, they're going to want to win. I have no doubt about that, so they will or they won't."
- Billick admitted he will be watching the 4 p.m. games of Denver and Jacksonville
following the Ravens' game against Miami.
"It's going to make for a hell of day of football," Billick said. "I'm going to play our game, we're going to beat the Miami Dolphins, I'm going to stop and get Chinese food on the way home, and sit and watch the rest of those games.
"Like a fan, I'm going to scream and dog-cuss the coaches for not running when they should have thrown and throwing when they should have run, and they should blitz more, and 'What the hell are you doing, going for it on fourth-and-1 on the 1-yard line?' because I have a vested interest in it, just like our fans do, and it's frustrating as hell."
- Kicker Matt Stover missed consecutive field-goal tries for the first time
in the end of last season.
"What I have to do is make sure I stay consistent, because that is what this team needs," Stover said. "We need every point on the board. I know that. Me missing the one in this game and getting it blocked in the Indianapolis game hurt us."
- Coming off perhaps their worst tackling performance of the season, the Ravens
are relatively powerless to address the situation.
The team has not practiced in pads in weeks, a routine that won't change.
"I can't all of a sudden throw them back in pads and say, 'OK guys, we're going to beat each other this week to make sure we get fundamentally sound in tackling.' You can't do it," Billick said. "All you can do is work on fundamentals in terms of body positioning. One of the things we constantly stress, even in shorts, is being in a tackling position."
- The Ravens are 5-6 against the AFC this season.
- The Ravens defense is second in the NFL with 57 three-and-outs.
- When the Ravens score 21 points or more, they are 35-9 since 1999.
- The Ravens are 6-1 when Terrell Suggs records a sack.
- Only two quarterbacks have thrown for 300 yards against the Ravens in their past 20 games.
BY THE NUMBERS: Three -- Offensive touchdowns scored by the Ravens in their past four losses.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We shouldn't be in this position. To shoot for the Super Bowl, it's going to come with conviction. To come back and do what we did, it's got to be humbling to you. Something needs to be corrected." -- Safety Ed Reed on the state of the team after losing four out of its past five games.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
An offensive line that has been shuffled throughout the season will undergo another change in the season finale.
Flynn starts at center for the first time this season after being the starter there for the past three seasons. He broke his collarbone in training camp and Rabach solidified himself there throughout the year, which forced Flynn to split time at right guard.
Mulitalo is expected to make a full recovery by minicamps next season.
"That's my understanding," coach Brian Billick said. "I don't think the seriousness of it goes much beyond that."
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
- QB Kyle Boller has thrown just one of his 11 interceptions at home.
- SS Ed Reed has scored six touchdowns in 47 career games.
- LB Terrell Suggs has 2 1/2 sacks over his last nine games.
- K Matt Stover had made a field goal in the first 14 games this season before
missing his past two attempts.
- RB Chester Taylor has 30 catches this season as the backup running back,
just four away from the team lead in receptions.
- RS B.J. Sams has a kickoff return of at least 40 yards the past two weeks.
GAME PLAN: The Ravens should come close to running the ball 40 times between running backs Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor. They want to control the ball and the clock against a Dolphins defense that ranks 30th against the run. Kyle Boller likely won't risk any turnovers by throwing to the outside against Miami's cornerbacks and will keep to high-percentage throws to his tight ends.
Defensively, the Ravens will apply heavy pressure to quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who is expected to replace injured starter A.J. Feeley (doubtful, ribs). Out of their 3-4 alignment, the Ravens aren't afraid to send any linebacker or defensive back to hurry quarterbacks. The Ravens can sell out against the pass because Miami is so poor at running the ball (82.8 yards a game).
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
- Ravens running back Jamal Lewis vs. Dolphins run defense: Lewis has had
a disappointing follow-up to last year's 2,000-yard season. He has three 100-yard
games in 11 starts. But the Dolphins have one of the worst run defenses and
have allowed nine 100-yard rushers in 15 games this season.
- Ravens pass rush vs. Dolphins quarterback Sage Rosenfels: The Ravens haven't
recorded a sack in two straight games after being one of the best pressure
defenses in the NFL. Rosenfels is expected to make his first start in place
of the injured A.J. Feeley.
- Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden vs. Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor: Ogden hasn't been on top of his game recently and has been hindered by some leg injuries. Taylor has 9 1/2 sacks this season to lead Miami.
- LG Edwin Mulitalo (arm) tore his triceps in his left arm and will have surgery
Thursday. He will be replaced by Casey Rabach, who will move from center to
left guard. Mike Flynn will start at center.
- OT Orlando Brown (knee) practiced and is expected to start. He is listed
as questionable and will likely rotate with Ethan Brooks.
- TE Todd Heap (ankle) will not practice this week but is expected to play.
He is questionable and could be limited to 20 to 25 snaps.
- NT Maake Kemoeatu (calf) is questionable and participated in all drills.
He will back up Kelly Gregg.
- RB Jamal Lewis (ankle) is not expected to practice this week but should
be able to start. He is questionable and could handle around 20 carries.
- LB Ray Lewis (wrist) is not expected to practice and is questionable. He
will play with a cast to protect his broken wrist, which could limit his tackling.
- CB Deion Sanders (foot) is questionable and did not practice. He will play
- LB Bart Scott (knee) is questionable but the special teams player should
be able to play.
- LG Casey Rabach (thigh) is probable and will start.
- DE Anthony Weaver (back) is probable and will start.
These stories were already published:
Kelly Holcomb could enter free agency with a 413-yard passing performance as the last experience on his resume.
With three cracked ribs, few would question the Browns quarterback for begging out of Sunday's season finale against Houston, a game significant only for draft positioning. A loss would clinch the No. 2 pick for Cleveland.
But Holcomb wants to play, partly because of his competitive nature and partly because he doesn't want to let down a young fan. Alex Sizemore, 14, of Kinsman, Ohio, has leukemia. He is battling his third recurrence of the disease, and his mother said he has only a 10 percent chance of survival.
Holcomb is Alex's favorite player, and the two posed for a picture before the San Diego game two weeks ago. On Wednesday, Alex wore Holcomb's No. 10 jersey when he was guest at Cleveland's practice. Alex was in the middle of the Browns huddle when they met as a team to break practice. Browns players signed a helmet for him.
"It really shows you how insignificant professional sports is and how significant life is," Holcomb said. "I look at his mom, and I could not imagine what she's going through. I have kids of my own. I know you're tested in life, but I just couldn't imagine.
"It does give you inspiration. We're playing a game here. He's playing the game of life. When it comes down to it, this game is pretty insignificant."
Sunday's game certainly is. Neither team is in playoff contention. The Browns are trying to end a nine-game losing streak, which is tied for the most the franchise has had in a single season.
Four of those losses have come since Terry Robiskie replaced Butch Davis as head coach. Holcomb was hurt while throwing for 413 yards against Cincinnati in Davis' last game. With Jeff Garcia out for the season, Robiskie has been forced to start mistake-prone rookie Luke McCown.
Rather than give McCown another shot, Robiskie seems intent on giving the ball to Holcomb.
Holcomb took practice reps with the starters Wednesday for the first time since his injury.
"I feel I'm pretty much ready," Holcomb said. "I feel I can play, but it's not my call."
Holcomb dismissed any stay-healthy-for-free-agency talk.
"I'm not worried about that," Holcomb said. "I'm worrying about trying to help this team win a game. Let's be honest about it, with free agency, with a new coach coming in or if Terry stays here, Sunday is the last time this group will be together."
If anyone wants to see Holcomb play more than he does, it might be Sizemore.
Said Robiskie, "If Alex can get him to play, I'll take Alex to Houston."
SERIES HISTORY: 2nd meeting. Cleveland leads 1-0. The Browns defeated the expansion Texans 34-17 on Oct. 20, 2002 in Cleveland.
- RB Lee Suggs' team-record 38 carries against Miami took a toll. He said
he spent all of Tuesday in bed. Asked what hurt most, Suggs replied, "Everything."
Coach Terry Robiskie said Suggs, whose lack of durability has been his only weakness, will be put through the wringer again this week.
"Anytime there's a guy like Lee who's been hurt, you're always scared," Robiskie said. "You wonder if he can do it week in and week out. You want to find out if he can do it like LaDainian (Tomlinson) can do it or like Earl Campbell used to do it. I wonder if the guy can do it for 16 weeks. We'll find out about these two in a row."
- The Browns are minus-11 in turnover differential, 26th in the NFL. The Texans
are plus 4, tied for 12th. The Browns have not forced more than one turnover
in any of their last four games.
- The Cleveland chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association voted safety
Robert Griffith as the Browns' Player of the Year. Griffith has a career-high
145 tackles, including seven for losses.
Cornerback Daylon McCutcheon was honored as the PFWA's Dino Lucarelli Good Guy Award winner for his involvement in the community and relationship with the media.
- Holcomb has started 11 games for the Browns. He has thrown for more than
325 yards in four of them.
- In the 2002 Browns-Texans game, Cleveland sacked QB David Carr eight times.
BY THE NUMBERS: .596 -- Winning percentage of Browns opponents, making Cleveland's schedule the toughest in the NFL.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I got a sense he was on a mission. I asked him the other day, `Is your contract up?" -- Browns coach Terry Robiskie on the inspired play of safety Robert Griffith. Griffith is signed through 2005.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Though Daylon McCutcheon was not listed on the injury report last week, Lewis Sanders started in his place at cornerback. McCutcheon is still bothered by a separated shoulder.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
- QB Kelly Holcomb (cracked ribs) practiced Wednesday and could start Sunday
- S Chris Crocker (biceps) is listed as questionable but said he would not
- TE Aaron Shea (ankle) is listed as questionable and did not practice Wednesday.
- LB Mason Unck (hamstring) is listed as questionable and did not practice
- OT Joaquin Gonzalez (illness) did not practice Wednesday but is listed as
- LB Warrick Holdman (dislocated finger) practiced Wednesday and is listed as probable.
GAME PLAN: The Browns are much better off if Holcomb can play because the Texans' blitzing defense could overwhelm rookie Luke McCown. Holcomb is adept at reading defenses and finding open receivers. If Holcomb does play, the offensive line must do a better job of protection because of the quarterback's ribs and lack of mobility. Look for coach Terry Robiskie to give the ball to RB Lee Suggs as much as possible to take pressure off whichever quarterback plays. Defensively, the Browns must contain Andre Johnson, who's clearly the Texans' best weapon.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
- Browns CB Anthony Henry, who has four interceptions, vs. Texans WR Andre
Johnson, who has 77 catches and 14 touchdowns. Henry is the Browns' best cornerback
and he has the size to match up with Johnson. Henry becomes a free agent at
the end of the season. A strong showing against one of the league's top young
receivers would be a good way to enter free agency.
- Browns RT Joaquin Gonzalez vs. Texans OLB Jason Babin. Gonzalez' lack of athleticism has been exposed lately, and Babin has the pass-rush ability to exploit it. Babin has four sacks and leads the Texans with 45 quarterback pressures. With Holcomb's fragile ribs, Gonzalez will have to be at his best if Holcomb's to avoid an early exit.
INJURY IMPACT: Holcomb's ribs will likely cause Robiskie to use more max protection than usual. That means receivers Antonio Bryant and Dennis Northcutt will have to do a good job of getting open because the Browns will be reluctant to send a tight end into pass patterns.
Ben Roethlisberger and Jerome Bettis, two of Pittsburgh's most productive offensive players, will not play in Buffalo in what is a meaningless game for the Steelers, who have clinched the AFC's No.1 seed.
Nevertheless, coach Bill Cowher promised his team will do everything it can to beat the Bills, even though he acknowledged he might substitute freely in the game that could have playoff ramifications for five teams.
Buffalo, Denver, Jacksonville, Baltimore and the New York Jets are all in the running for the two wildcard playoff berths in the AFC.
"This is not about what we owe anybody," Cowher said. "This is what we owe ourselves. This is how you play the game. At this point in the season, we have to play the game the way we know how to play the game. Those are not things you turn on and off. If you think you can turn it on and off, then you are going to be mistaken, and down the road it is going to be very disappointing."
Cowher's teams have been competitive in these types of games, where their playoff position had already been established before the end of the season. In 1994, they lost at San Diego 37-34. In 1995 they lost at Green Bay 24-19 when Yancey Thigpen dropped a pass in the end zone in the final seconds; the victory by the Packers clinched the NFC Central Division title for them.
In 1996, the Steelers lost at Carolina 18-14, a game in which Kordell Stewart played the entire second half at quarterback for starter Mike Tomczak. Pittsburgh lost at Tennessee 16-6 in the 1997 finale and beat Cleveland 28-7 to end the 2001 season.
"I am a firm believer that you are who you are," Cowher said. "We are a football team that when we step on that field, we are going to play our way. It is for no other reason than that. I think the last thing you can do is try to go into any football game and diminish the importance of it. Certainly, you are going to keep the big picture in mind, but we are going to go out there, and we are preparing this week as we always have to go up there and win this football game."
Besides Roethlisberger and Bettis, Cowher might pull Plaxico Burress out of the game early. Burress played last Sunday after missing the previous four games with a hamstring injury.
"I don't want to go out there and risk further damage to my leg or to my body, period," Burress said. "But I definitely want to go out and get my feet wet a little more and catch a few balls and just get the speed of the game down because it's going to start to pick up as we go along."
Mike Mularkey, who coached eight years in Pittsburgh under Cowher before Buffalo hired him as its coach this year, believes the Steelers will give it their all.
"Hey, I know the coach there," Mularkey said. "I know them well. They will be there to play. I don't care who they play, they will play."
Said Cowher, "We are not going to approach this game any differently than we have approached the other 15 games. We are going to get our time off. We have to go up and play football."
SERIES HISTORY: 21st meeting. Pittsburgh leads the series 11-9, including 2-1 in the playoffs. However, the Bills have won seven of the 10 games played in Buffalo. Bill Cowher's teams are 4-2 vs. the Bills, 1-2 in Buffalo. The last time the Steelers ended the regular-season against the Bills came in 1979, when they went on to win their fourth Super Bowl. The Steelers beat the Bills, 20-3 in Buffalo the last time they played, in 2001.
- Before this season, the Steelers never went through a game without having
to punt. They've gone through three games this season without having to punt
- more than anyone in a season since at least 1966 - including the past two
- Of the six Steelers who made the Pro Bowl, three of them were drafted by
Tom Donahoe when he was their director of football operations - Hines Ward,
Alan Faneca and Joey Porter. Donahoe, fired by the Steelers in 2000, is now
president and general manager of the Buffalo Bills.
- Switch and match: Last year, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau
was Buffalo's assistant head coach, Bills coach Mike Mularkey was Steelers
offensive coordinator and Bills offensive coordinator Tom Clements was Pittsburgh's
- The Steelers finished the regular season 8-0 at home, only the third time
they've gone unbeaten in Pittsburgh. They were 8-0 in 1979, when they won
their fourth Super Bowl, and 7-0 in 1972 when they reached the AFC Championship
QB Tommy Maddox's elbow injury in the second game of the season turned into the Roethlisberger Era as the Steelers went 13-0 with the rookie as their starter and 14-1 to overall to earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC. "Things happen for a reason," said Maddox. "I know that and have gone through my whole career knowing that. This too has happened for a reason.
"It might be for this team to have the successful season we had or we might have been just as successful if I were playing. Who knows? You can't sit there and try to figure out things that don't happen. Things happen, you deal with them and you go on."
BY THE NUMBERS: 13 - The Steelers' winning streak, two longer than the previous club record, set in 1975.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Why go out there and risk our starting quarterback in a situation that can hurt him later down the road?" - WR Plaxico Burress, on his belief Ben Roethlisberger will not play in Buffalo Sunday.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
- QB Ben Roethlisberger, who is not expected to play Sunday, would break
Dan Marino's rookie records for completion percentage .664, and passer rating,
- RB Duce Staley went through a full practice on Wednesday and could start
- LB James Farrior was voted the Steelers' Most Valuable Player by his teammates
on Wednesday. Farrior leads them in tackles and has three sacks, four interceptions,
three fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles.
- LB James Harrison, making only his third NFL start, led the Steelers with
four quarterback pressures last week from the left outside position. He will
make his third consecutive start for injured Clark Haggans Sunday. Harrison
also leads the Steelers with 23 special teams tackles.
- RB Verron Haynes had the best game of his career last week with 61 yards and should get more playing time Sunday in Buffalo.
GAME PLAN: With Tommy Maddox at quarterback and Jerome Bettis not playing, the Steelers may try to open up their passing game Sunday in Buffalo. Maddox needs to crank it up since he hasn't had much chance to do that since the second game of the season; he threw two passes last week, one ruled a lateral. Look for Pittsburgh to also crank it up on defense. They haven't had a sack in the past three games and have only three more than last season, when they had an all-time low under Bill Cowher with 35. They believe they can put the heat on Drew Bledsoe.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Buffalo OT Mike Williams vs. LOLB James Harrison of the Steelers. ... Buffalo DT Sam Adams vs. Pro Bowl C Jeff Hartings and RG Keydrick Vincent. ... Bills RB Willis McGahee vs. the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL. ... QB Drew Bledsoe vs. a pass rush that has produced no sacks in the past three games.
INJURY IMPACT: Ben Roethlisberger (bruised ribs) is listed as questionable but will not play and Tommy Maddox will make his first start at quarterback since the second game of the season. ... RB Jerome Bettis (ankle) is listed as doubtful and will not play Sunday. Duce Staley or Verron Haynes will replace him. ... LB Clark Haggans (groin) will miss his third straight game and James Harrison again will replace him. ... RCB Deshea Townsend is out with a broken hand and Chad Scott will replace him, playing in his first game since Oct. 17.