Ravens look to make up ground

OWINGS MILLS -- Staring ahead at separation in the AFC North race created by the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Baltimore Ravens will hand the baton to Jamal Lewis to try to catch up.

Lewis' two-game suspension for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy ended after the Ravens' 15-10 loss Sunday to the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles. And the Ravens (4-3) are banking on his powerful stride boosting their bid to repeat as division champions as they trail the Steelers (6-1) by two games in the standings.

"We put ourselves behind the count a little bit in terms of where we thought we could be at this point," Ravens coach Brian Billick said Monday. "It puts a higher premium as we go forward. We clearly have to be better in order to re-establish ourselves as a team that has playoff and Super Bowl aspirations."

In forecasting the season to this point, there was no way for Baltimore to anticipate the four-game absence of tight end Todd Heap with a sprained ankle, losing offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden to a pulled hamstring or Lewis' suspension. Yet, Baltimore has managed to win games largely because of the top defense in the NFL in terms of points allowed (100), athletic rookie return specialist B.J. Sams and a conservative offense.

It's not where the Ravens had hoped to be, though, which was holding a 5-2 mark upon Lewis' return. Meanwhile, Heap and Ogden are likely to be listed as questionable for Sunday night's game against the Cleveland Browns.

"When I say we're behind the count, we're a game short of what we might realistically look at if you were going to intellectually look at the season and say, 'This is how it might pan out,'" Billick said. "As opposed to emotionally or as a competitor when you say, 'God, anything short of 7-0 and we're going to blow the whole thing up.' Now we're going to go forward and see what we're going to make happen over the next two weeks."

With Lewis back in the picture, Baltimore regains a 2,066-yard rusher from last season who was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He also has a history of thriving against the Browns, most notably with a 295-yard game last year to shatter the NFL single-game rushing mark. "He's not coming back off an injury, he ought to be fresh and feeling good," Billick said of Lewis, who has rushed for 494 yards and four touchdowns. "I can't imagine that he's not ready to go, carrying as much as he normally does. He probably feels as good physically as anybody on this team right now."

During Lewis' suspension, Baltimore defeated Buffalo 20-6 and lost to a Philadelphia team regarded as the definitive favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Chester Taylor rushed for 78 yards Sunday in Lewis' place, working in tandem with Musa Smith to combine for 100 and 103 rushing yards against Buffalo and Philadelphia, respectively. Taylor fumbled in the fourth quarter against the Eagles, leading to Terrell Owens' game-winning touchdown and his accurate, arrogant rendition of linebacker Ray Lewis' trademark dance.

Could the game have been different if Jamal Lewis had been available?

"Taking nothing away from Chester and Musa, you'd probably think so," Billick said. "Jamal Lewis is a special back. He has proven that. You've got to believe he would make a difference."

Second-year quarterback Kyle Boller was asked to contribute more against the Eagles and responded with a solid showing. He completed 24 of 38 passes (63 percent) for a season-high 223 yards and tossed his first touchdown pass since an Oct. 4 loss to Kansas City.

Trailing 15-10 with 1:34 remaining and no timeouts, Boller wasn't able to capitalize in the two-minute drill. He hit Travis Taylor for 23 yards, spiked the football to stop the clock and then threw three consecutive incompletions.

"For the most part, I think the guys executed very well," Billick said. "I think Kyle played very well and we needed to make a few more plays: Kyle, the receivers and the backs. We needed to not turn the ball over.

"On the whole, the individuals played well within the context of a loss. I think Kyle's teammates have a great deal of faith in him."

Billick said he didn't sleep following the loss to Philadelphia, which was punctuated by Owens' latest controversy.

"To the victor goes the spoils," Billick said regarding Owens' choreographed theatrics.

The Steelers, who are 5-0 with rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger starting, will host the Eagles at home this weekend as Baltimore tries to improve to 3-1 in the division. The Ravens opened the season with a 20-3 loss to Cleveland followed by a 30-13 win over Pittsburgh and a 23-9 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I want to make up one ground and that's beating Cleveland," Billick said. "We can't worry about what's going on in the division with regards to the Pittsburgh Steelers until we play Pittsburgh. We beat Pittsburgh fairly decisively. We don't play them again until the end of the season.

"What happens between now and then with Pittsburgh, there's absolutely nothing I can do about it. It's not worth worrying or watching because it's not going to alter how we approach the Cleveland Browns."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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