AFC North Report

<b>BALTIMORE RAVENS</b><br><br> The biggest game of the season has turned into the easiest week for coach Brian Billick.<br><br> The Ravens (7-5) play host to the Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) as the two teams atop the AFC North battle for sole possession of first place.

"That's as good as it gets," Billick said. "As a coach, you don't have to worry about focus, energy and passion. They know what's in front of them and they're excited about it. It's going to be a great week."

What energizes the Ravens even more is they lost to the Bengals six weeks ago. It was a game in which the Ravens believe they gave away 17 points on three turnovers by rookie quarterback Kyle Boller (two fumbles and one interception).

"Going in the first game, our mindset was, 'It's going to be the same old Bengals.' We should go in there and win," linebacker Peter Boulware said. "Now, our mindset is, 'This is a great football team.' It's not a team that you can beat by not doing anything. You have to go in there and be prepared, focused. Hopefully, if we do that, we can come out on top."

Focus could play a big part in the game's outcome.

The Bengals haven't played in an important game in December since 1990. And the Ravens only have 13 players who were part of their last playoff run.

"There's going to be a lot of stress put on this game," tight end Todd Heap said. "I think we, as a team, have always been able to handle that type of thing and keep focused on what we want to do and try to get accomplished. We just need to continue to do that this week. We can't worry about what everybody is building it up to be."

Jamal Lewis was held under 100 yards for the fourth time in 12 games. It was still a profitable day as a $1.9 million incentive clause was triggered by going over 1,400 yards. He did most of his damage on the Ravens' first touchdown drive, running for 30 yards on three carries. After that, Lewis was limited to 48 yards on his final 16 attempts (3.0-yard average). It was an underachieving day considering the 49ers' undersized line and banged-up linebacking corps.

Season-best INTs
The pass defense bounced back after a porous effort against Seattle by picking off a season-best four passes. Those interceptions led to 24 points. The secondary took San Francisco's receivers out of the game. Of the 49ers' 17 completions, 12 went to tight ends and running backs. All three of Owens' catches came against the Ravens' zone defense. Their pass rush didn't register a sack but it did force some hurries from quarterback Jeff Garcia. The running back duo of Kevan Barlow and Garrison Heart was effective early and finished with 95 total rushing yards. But the Ravens forced them to grind it out by limiting them to 4.1 yards per carry. Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware combined for another fourth-down stand at midfield in the third quarter, which led to a Ravens field goal. Lewis had 18 tackles and underrated nose tackle Kelly Gregg had seven.

Field Day
Ravens kicker Matt Stover has converted 18 straight field goals this season after converting from 28, 47 and 41 yards. The Ravens won the field-position battle by averaging 40.3 yards on kickoffs and 11 yards on punts. Ravens kickoff specialist Wade Richey's first six attempts all went inside the 7-yard line including his 12th touchback of the season. Lamont Brightful returned a kickoff 75 yards to set up a field goal. A facemask on Brightful on a punt return near the end of the first half led to a late touchdown. Adalius Thomas made four special teams tackles.

Ravens Quick Hits

  • CB Gary Baxter has officially moved permanently from free safety to cornerback, coach Brian Billick said. His speed and physical play is an improvement over the injured Corey Fuller. Fuller will be limited to 30-35 snaps as the nickel back. Hamstring and groin injuries have slowed him down.
  • DE Anthony Weaver is expected to return to the starting lineup after sitting out with a neck injury. He is a vital cog to the run defense and pass rush.
  • ILB Ray Lewis had his thumb taped after injuring it Sunday. The injury is not considered to limit him in practice.
  • FS Will Demps will remain the starter as Gary Baxter moves to cornerback. Demps is solid in run support but has been slow in reacting to deep pass plays.

Quote to Note
"Everybody in the country is excited that Cincinnati has a team that has this viability. We can't let that distract us. If we're fortunate to win, we're just going to be those bad Baltimore bullies again that are killing this great national story." -- Coach Brian Billick on playing the rejuvenated Cincinnati Bengals.


Each game in the Bengals' four-game win streak has grown in importance. Keeping with the trend, none is bigger now than their game Sunday at Baltimore.

The Bengals and Ravens are tied atop the AFC North at 7-5. A Cincinnati victory would give it a one-game lead in the standings and the edge in the first tie-breaking formula - a 2-0 advantage in head-to-head competition.

A 2-1 record in the final three games - following a victory at Baltimore - would give the Bengals the division title even if the Ravens went 3-0 to finish in a 10-6 tie.

But Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is looking only at the Ravens.

"We don't have to worry about that," he said Monday when asked about playoff expectations. "We just have to worry about this next game. We are not in a situation where we can look ahead of ourselves, because everything is right there in front of us."

A loss at Baltimore puts the Bengals at a decided disadvantage down the stretch. They have home games against the 49ers and Browns sandwiched around a trip to play the 9-3 Rams at St. Louis. The record of the Bengals' final three opponents is 18-18. Baltimore's final three opponents currently have an 11-25 composite record.

The Bengals defeated Baltimore 34-26 on Oct. 19 at Paul Brown Stadium. The game saved the season, improving the Bengals to 2-4 and starting a 6-1 run that put them into playoff contention in December for the first time since the 1990 season. The Ravens know the Bengals of Week 14 are different than the Bengals of Week 7.

"Going in the first game, our mindset was, 'It's going to be the same old Bengals. We should go in there and win,'" Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware said. "Now, our mindset is, `This is a great football team.'"

Offensive Notes
Jon Kitna tossed three more touchdown passes in the 24-20 victory at Pittsburgh. He has nine, against no interceptions, in the past three games. The offensive line allowed only one sack to an aggressive Pittsburgh front seven. Chad Johnson had one touchdown catch and a second consecutive 100-yard game. Peter Warrick continues to be effective on third down. Kitna has 19 touchdown passes and just four interceptions in the past nine games, when the Bengals are 7-2. The Bengals had just 113 rushing yards, but the average was 4.5 on 25 carries. They had few opportunities in the second half, when the Steelers controlled the ball. The 113 yards snapped a string of three 200-yard rushing games.

Prevent problem
Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox threw for 335 yards, but the Bengals sacked him six times for 36 yards. The Bengals had an interception from cornerback Artrell Hawkins, but the prevent defense allowed the Steelers to march down the field to score a go-ahead touchdown with 1:05 remaining. There could be problems headed to Baltimore to play a hot Baltimore team. Against the Steelers, the Bengals gave up a combined 21 receptions for 261 yards to Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress.

Bengals Quick Hits

  • Middle linebacker Kevin Hardy keyed on Bettis and led the team with 14 legitimate tackles. The Steelers were committed to the run, and the Bengals held them to 85 yards on 26 carries.
  • CB Jeff Burris is likely to remain doubtful for the game Sunday at Baltimore. He is still recovering from a second concussion he suffered at Arizona on Nov. 2.
  • TE Reggie Kelly returned to the lineup at Pittsburgh and was a little sore afterwards, coach Marvin Lewis said Monday.
  • WR Chad Johnson remains first in the AFC with 1,105 receiving yards, which is good for third in the NFL after 12 games.
  • QB Jon Kitna has the fourth best passer rating, 91.2, in the AFC, which is seventh in the NFL. He has 18 touchdown passes and one interception in the seven victories.
  • RB Rudi Johnson, because of inconsistent statistics supplied by the NFL, has 691 rushing yards for the season - not 701.
  • PK Shayne Graham leads the team with 82 points and is 17 of 19 on field goals. His 82 points are the most for any Bengal player since 1996 when kicker Doug Pelfrey had 110.

Quote to Note
"Congratulations - once again. Win the month of December." -- Coach Marvin Lewis, writing on the bottom of a practice- and workout-schedule sheet placed in players' lockers Monday morning.


The Browns have followed up their playoff season by losing two-thirds of their games.

Though it's easy to overreact after a loss, the Browns are not giving much hope that 2004 will offer great improvement.

The offense, especially, seems to be missing some key pieces.

There are questions about the future at quarterback, whether Kelly Holcomb is the answer or Tim Couch will be part of the team's future.

There are questions about the future of running back William Green.

There are questions about whether Dennis Northcutt will leave as a free agent, which could force the Browns to draft another receiver.

And there are questions about the team's offensive line.

Defensively, the jury remains out on Courtney Brown and Kenard Lang and the Browns have roster bonus decisions to make on Orpheus Roye and cornerback Daylon McCutcheon.

Three games ago, team president Carmen Policy and coach Butch Davis said they felt the Browns were better in 2003 than they were in 2002.

It's hard to argue that now.

When a team goes from the playoffs to losing twice as many as they win, it's pretty clearly a step back.

Matt Hasselbeck threw for over 300 yards with 2 touchdowns, WRs Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson each topped 100 yards in receptions, and fullback Mack Strong rumbled 32 yards on a third-and-17 screen pass. RB Shaun Alexander ran for 127 yards and a 4.7-yard average.

Seattle sacked Holcomb four times, picked him off once and limited him to a long completion of 17 yards. Browns coach Butch Davis turned to QB Tim Couch after halftime, but Seattle knocked him out of the game after only five plays. The only thing that saved the Browns passing offense from complete failure was that Holcomb completed more than 50 percent of his throws. Overall, though, he was ineffective and did little to spark the team. Tim Couch fared no better in his five plays, as the Browns did little offensively. The running game never had a chance to get going, ending up with 47 yards on 16 carries.

Offensively, defensively and on special teams, the Browns collapsed. This was by far the poorest effort and game of the Butch Davis era.

Browns Quick Hits

  • QB Tim Couch was twisted in a pass rush and sprained the MCL in his left knee. He will probably be listed as questionable for the Monday night game against the Rams.
  • RB William Green is eligible to return from his four-game suspension this week, but whether he plays is unknown. The Browns want Green around the team, though, to try to give him some help and support as he overcomes his personal struggles.
  • DT Gerard Warren was ejected from the loss in Seattle for punching Seattle center Robbie Tobeck. In his three years in Cleveland, Warren has been ejected for throwing a punch, fined $35,000 for hitting Mark Brunell in the head late, suspended one game by the Browns after an arrest at a party in Pittsburgh and fined $5,000 for hitting a Chiefs lineman late.
  • WR Quincy Morgan returned to the game in the second half after taking a blow to the head in the first period, but had to take himself out of the game when he couldn't pick up the ball. "Just running and turning, it seemed like I couldn't really focus," Morgan said.
  • OG Chad Beasley started in place of the injured Paul Zukauskas, marking yet another game when the Browns had a new line combination. The Browns match San Diego with nine different line starters this year, most in the league.

Quote to Note
"That was worse than a loss. That was an ass-whooping." -- cornerback Daylon McCutcheon on the 34-7 loss to Seattle.


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