Ravens experiencing deja vu heading into Cleveland

OWINGS MILLS – The Baltimore Ravens are banking on their inventory of skilled personnel along with an arsenal of intangibles as they wage a battle for the AFC North title. <P> Beyond confidently relying upon NFL rushing leader Jamal Lewis and blue-chip linebacker Ray Lewis heading into Sunday's road football game against the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore (8-6) possesses a sense of déjà vu to accompany a more talented roster.

It was at this exact point last season when one of the youngest teams in league history began to falter in its bid to return to the playoffs after self-inflicted salary-cap wounds ravaged the team's depth two winters ago.

With Ray Lewis done for the season with a shoulder injury, Baltimore lost consecutive games to Cleveland and eventual division champion Pittsburgh to finish 7-9 overall and out of the postseason. Once again, the Ravens need wins over Cleveland and Pittsburgh along with assistance to make the playoffs over the Cincinnati Bengals or remain in contention for a wild-card berth.

"Once we saw that on the schedule, I thought, ‘Man, they're putting us in this position again,'" Jamal Lewis said. "It makes it fun and interesting and that's what this game is all about, having to fight to the end for what really counts."

One game after relinquishing their grip on the division with a head-scratching, 20-12 loss to the Oakland Raiders, the Ravens are hoping to transform a chip on their collective shoulders into a log by Sunday's kickoff at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

"They have the attitude I wanted out of them: They're [ticked] off because they let one get away," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "No disrespect to Oakland. They deserved that win, but our guys let one get away and they ought to be [ticked] off. If they're not, I'm going to make sure that they are."

Asked why the Ravens might be able to supplant the co-leading Bengals and handle the playoff atmosphere better this time, Ray Lewis said: "I wasn't there last year, for one. Second, we are way more mature and understand what is at stake."

Last season, the Ravens fell 14-13 to Cleveland in Baltimore because of Browns quarterback Tim Couch's two-minute drill.

In the season finale, the Ravens squandered a 31-20 lead in the fourth quarter at Pittsburgh.

A fumbled kickoff by Chester Taylor set up Plaxico Burress' game-winning touchdown catch. A lob pass by Jeff Blake to Randy Hymes was intercepted in the end zone during the final seconds.

Cleveland earned a wild-card berth, and the Ravens were shut out of the postseason tournament for the first time in two years.

"We don't want it to end like last year," Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap said. "We are a different team and we can't let what happened last year happen again. This year, it was more in our control and we let it slip away.

"We had the chance to really put ourselves ahead in the division, but we didn't take care of business. We are upset and are coming into this game with an attitude to win and get ourselves into the playoffs."

Billick has already cautioned his football team to not engage in scoreboard watching, advice they appear to have already heeded.

"One thing I've learned in life, and the NFL, is that you worry about what you can control," linebacker Peter Boulware said. "One thing we can control is how we play and what we do. Worrying about who wins, who loses, that will just stress you out and mess you up."

Baltimore is looking to duplicate a 33-13 blowout of the Browns in September where Jamal Lewis shattered the NFL single-game rushing mark with 295 yards. Lewis has 1,747 yards and needs 253 yards to become the fifth player to reach the 2,000-yard mark in 83 years of league history.

Prior to last week's setback, the Ravens had been on a three-game winning streak punctuated by 44-point showings in wins over Seattle and San Francisco with 31 more in a victory over Cincinnati. All of this with former third-string quarterback Anthony Wright at the controls.

If Billick was looking to agitate and see evidence of anger from his players, look no further than cornerback Chris McAlister.

"I think he did a good job of getting us [ticked] off by practicing us in the rain for two hours in the walkthrough," McAlister said. "It's time to get out there and bring that fire we had the previous two weeks before Oakland."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.


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