AFC North Report

<b>CLEVELAND BROWNS</b><br><br> Tim Couch's future will be determined in the next three games.<p> Couch will take over as the Browns starting quarterback for the final games of a season that has turned amazingly dismal. The loss to the Rams drops the Browns to 4-9, and five more players were put on injured reserve the day after the loss.

Kelly Holcomb threw for 392 yards in a win over Arizona, but followed that by throwing five interceptions and one touchdown. His two interceptions basically cost the Browns a chance to beat St. Louis, and as a result Couch was named the starter for the rest of the season.

Eleven players have missed a total of 53 starts this season, and Couch faces the unenviable task of taking over a lackluster offense with a team that may not have enough players to compete.

Injuries have ravaged the Cleveland Browns, especially Monday Night when the Browns lost running back James Jackson, defensive end Courtney Brown, guard Chad Beasley, placekicker Phil Dawson and defensive back Lewis Sanders for the season. All were put on injured reserve. With younger players taking their place, the Browns may be too injury-ravaged to compete. No team can handle constantly losing players, and the Browns have been losing players all season long.

No matter, this is his chance - again.

And you have to wonder if Couch is playing for the Browns or for himself.

Couch has two years left on the seven-year deal he signed when he was the first overall draft pick in 1999. He is due to be paid $7.6 million in 2004, a figure Carmen Policy has said is too high and will have to be re-done if Couch is back.

This season, Couch lost his job, got it back when Kelly Holcomb was hurt, wound up buried way deep on the bench after the bye week and now is starting again in light of Holcomb's recent struggles.

Couch played well Monday night against St. Louis, and he did help lead the Browns to the playoffs last season.

But the jury remains out on him. He plays well one week, not-so-well the next. There was a reason, after all, that the Browns did go to Holcomb at the beginning of the season.

Nobody knows what will happen.

Will Couch be the star everyone expected? Will he be dragged down by the lack of a supporting cast? Will he just go through the motions the final three games? Will the events of this season bring something out of him fans have yet to see?

Couch has been careful about saying all the right things this season. As recently as Monday night he said he'd like to be with the Browns next season.

Does he mean it? Nobody knows.

If he stayed in Cleveland and Butch Davis comes back as coach - which is expected - Couch would be playing for a coach who basically told him this season he didn't believe in him.

Couch also admits that every game he's auditioning for other teams. For that reason alone it's in his interests to play well.

In this little game within the game, Couch holds the cards.

He can stay and earn a very lucrative salary. If he really wants to be in Cleveland and the Browns ask him to redo his deal, he can go along to help the team and earn a mere lucrative salary.

But if he doesn't want to stay in Cleveland, all he has to do to leave is say no to the restructuring idea, which would force the team to cut him and allow him to hit free agency.

It wouldn't be surprising if, in a private moment, Couch admitted that his major concern the final three games is to stay healthy.

Series History
20th meeting, the Broncos lead the series 14-5, including in the last game -- a 44-10 Broncos win. Among the wins are three Denver victories in AFC Championship Games in the 1980s, which were among the three toughest losses in Browns history.

Strategy
Clinton Portis has to be Butch Davis' biggest nightmare. Portis would like nothing better than to show his former college coach that Davis made a mistake when he drafted William Green and not Portis. Portis last week ran for five touchdowns while Green sat out another game due to league suspension. Portis clearly has had a better two seasons than Green, but the Browns weren't the only team to pass on him. He was selected 51st overall, which means every team had a chance to draft him and some had two chances. The Browns, though, clearly were the team that knew him best given Davis' familiarity with Portis.

The Browns game plan on defense has to start with stopping the Denver running game. Offensively, the coaching staff has to somehow figure a way to give the team's passers time to throw. The offensive line for the Browns is a patchwork crew, and against St. Louis the team used tight ends to help with pass protection. It worked sometimes, but other times it didn't.

Matchups to watch
- Browns LBs vs. Portis. Portis is as good as they come, and the Browns linebackers are the ones assigned to chase him down. They will have their hands full this weekend.

-Browns S Earl Little vs. Broncos TE Shannon Sharpe. Little wants to go to the Pro Bowl; what better way he shows he deserves it than to shut down one of the league's better, more experienced tight ends.

-Browns LT Barry Stokes vs. Broncos RDE Bertrand Berry. Berry leads the Broncos with 9 1/2 sacks and can take advantage of Stokes, who has struggled of late.

Future in doubt
Courtney Browns' future in Cleveland is again in question thanks to his latest injury - a ruptured biceps tendon. Brown had a solid season going as he came back from microfracture surgery on his knee, but the ruptured tendon will take months of rehab and has some with the team wondering if it may lead Brown to ponder retirement.

Money concerns
The Browns have four large salaries to consider in 2004. Couch is due to make $7.6 million, Brown $6 million. Defensive tackle Gerard Warren also hit incentives in his first year that raised his base pay in 2004 to $5.8 million, which puts him among the highest-paid players in the league. Finally, Ross Verba is due to make $4.6 million - and he is coming off a ruptured biceps tendon.

Browns Quick Hits

  • Phil Dawson played much of the game against St. Louis with a broken arm. The painful experience garnered Dawson much respect from his teammates.
  • Earl Little spent a good part of last week telling Cleveland media he is worthy of Pro Bowl consideration. Little told a national television audience the same thing, when he mugged for the camera following an interception and said "Pro Bowl."
  • Jamel White came out of mothballs to run for 101 yards and average six yards per carry against St. Louis. White showed that he didn't deserve to be buried for much of the season.
  • WR Andre Davis has not had great games since taking over for Kevin Johnson, who was released. Davis has had trouble beating jams at the line of scrimmage, and has not been the deep threat the team envisioned.
  • OG Paul Zukauskas will be back this week and will step in for the injured Chad Beasley. Zukauskas had been starting prior to the last two games, which he missed to be with his mother, who was dying of cancer.
  • With Courtney Brown out due to a ruptured biceps tendon, Mark Word steps in as the starter. Word can rush the passer, but struggles against the run, which may be a problem on Sunday.
  • With James Jackson out due to a torn knee ligament, Jamel White and Lee Suggs should get time. White showed what he can do against St. Louis; Suggs has yet to have a big chance.
  • With Phil Dawson out due to a broken arm, the Browns were able to find an experienced kicker in Brett Conway.
  • With Chad Beasley out due to a broken ankle, Paul Zukauskas returns to the starting lineup.

Quote to Note
"We're trying to find somebody that will deliver some consistency." - coach Butch Davis, on why he switched quarterbacks from Kelly Holcomb to Tim Couch.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

The Baltimore Ravens will be battling complacency as much as the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

With a one-game lead in the AFC North, the Ravens (8-5) travel cross country to meet the hapless Raiders (3-10), losers of eight of their past nine games.

If the Ravens are on top of their game, they should win handedly. If they're not, they could prime for an upset against an Oakland team one year removed from the Super Bowl.

"It's not a speed trap when you know the cop is sitting behind the sign," coach Brian Billick said. "If you're speeding, it's just stupidity. A trap game or not, we'll be ready to play."

The game has all the makings of a rout.

The Ravens rank second in the NFL in rushing; the Raiders have the second-worst run defense. The Ravens rank fourth in pass defense; the Raiders have the 25th-ranked air attack.

Over the past two weeks, the Ravens have outscored opponents, 75-19; the Raiders have been outscored, 49-15, over that same span.

"That's just on paper," Ravens running back Jamal Lewis said.

The Ravens, though, realize there is no certainty on the road. They have lost their last three on the road, with 43 of the 86 points scored against them coming off turnovers.

"If you overlook a team in the NFL, you're dead. You're absolutely dead," Billick said. "The players won't, the coaches won't. I'll make sure of that."

Under Billick, focus has been one of Baltimore's strong suits. In his fifth season, the Ravens are 12-5 in December and are looking for their third trip to the playoffs.

"I think we're mature enough to go to Oakland and take care of business," linebacker Ray Lewis said.

Series History
Fourth meeting. The Ravens have won all three meetings including a 16-3 at Oakland in the 2000 AFC Championship game. Tight end Shannon Sharpe broke a scoreless game with an NFL postseason-record 96-yard catch four minutes into the second quarter. On Oakland's next play, defensive tackle Tony Siragusa knocked out Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon and then cornerback Duane Starks intercepted Bobby Hoying which eventually led to a 10-0 halftime lead. The Ravens' defense forced five turnovers and limited Oakland to 191 yards of total offense.

Exciting times for Suggs
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has been charged with felony aggravated assault in connection with a fight after a March basketball game in Phoenix, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Suggs, 21, is accused of assaulting a man with a reinforced rod and attacking another man in the parking lot of Phoenix Municipal Stadium after a three-on-three basketball tournament. Suggs took a flight to Phoenix on Monday morning but is expected to be back in time for today's practice, team officials confirmed.

Authorities were considering issuing a warrant for Suggs' arrest before the rookie decided to go to Arizona.

With the loss of starting outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, who had elbow surgery Tuesday and is out for the season, Suggs will be starting his first game at linebacker.

Thomas had surgery Tuesday for a fractured right elbow and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Thomas' arm rolled underneath Ray Lewis when the two pounced on a fumble, one of five turnovers forced in the Ravens' pivotal 31-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Suggs worked as a starting linebacker all during the offseason camp but was removed in training camp when he was slow to adapt to the new position. In pass defense, he seemed indecisive and very mechanical in backpedaling.

"It's time for the young man to step up," coach Brian Billick said. "He's playing well. Now he's going to have an opportunity to play well more."

Thomas built a reputation for being a flashy player, knocking down eight passes and recording four sacks this season. On special teams, he was playing at a Pro Bowl level, coming up with 23 tackles, a forced fumble and a blocked punt.

Like Thomas, Suggs has shown a flair for making the big play. Used primarily as a rush end in passing situations, he leads the Ravens with 10 sacks and four forced fumbles.

To spell Suggs, run-stopper Cornell Brown will continue to rotate in at linebacker.

"We've been working toward this," Billick said. "Obviously, that's the position Terrell was brought in here to play. Cornell was playing very well and gives us a certain set of abilities within the confines of the defense. Terrell's abilities certainly match more of AD's."

"He went to Arizona to meet with authorities," said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' vice president of public and community relations. "He's handling the situation, and we expect him back."

Suggs will appear at a preliminary hearing Jan. 20, two days after the AFC championship game and 12 days before the Super Bowl in Houston.

"This is a bit of a hit for us," coach Brian Billick said of the loss of Thomas. "But every team in December takes some type of hit, and part of going on is how you react to it and having the next guy step up."

Strategy
With their turnover problems on the road, the Ravens won't test the Oakland secondary. They will push to expose a marginal run defense, which has a former Ravens training camp player, Tim Johnson, starting at middle linebacker. Look for the Ravens to get tight end Todd Heap more involved with medium-range passes to keep the Raiders honest.

Defensively, the Ravens want to pressure quarterback Rick Mirer, who is nursing an ankle injury. In passing situations, Baltimore's front of Terrell Suggs, Peter Boulware and Tony Weaver have combined for 22 1/2 sacks this season. The Ravens are seeking to continue a trend of forcing turnovers and creating short fields for their offense.

Matchups to watch
- Ravens cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Gary Baxter vs. Raiders receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. These physical cornerbacks are the reason why the Ravens have the fourth-ranked pass defense. The Ravens have held six of their last seven opponents under 186 yards passing. Rice and Brown, two future Hall of Fame players, have combined for 91 catches this season.

- Ravens running back Jamal Lewis vs. Raiders run defense. Lewis, the league's leading rusher, is averaging 124.7 yards per game. Ranked second to last in run defense, the Raiders are giving up 149.2 yards per game.

- The biggest mismatch of the game is the league's leading rusher, Jamal Lewis, against Oakland's 31st-ranked run defense. "It's the ultimate challenge," Raiders coach Bill Callahan said.

Ravens Quick Hits

  • Jamal Lewis continues to lead the NFL in rushing with 1,622 yards, which is 159 more than Green Bay's Ahman Green, the league's second-leading rusher.
  • In the 38 games that running back Jamal Lewis and linebacker Ray Lewis (no relation) have played together over the last four years, the Ravens are 26-12.
  • The Ravens are 26-12 in games played in November and December, the league's fourth-best winning percentage in those months.
  • When leading at halftime, the Ravens are 7-0. When they trail by six or more points at the end of the first quarter, they are 0-3.
  • The Ravens have scored 119 points in their last three games, which is a franchise record.
  • When the Ravens force multiple turnovers, they are 8-1.
  • In five seasons under Billick, the Ravens have a 23-5 record when they produce a 100-yard rusher.
  • Quarterback Kyle Boller (leg) is scheduled to be the third quarterback.

Quote to Note
"This not a time for any team to take a bow. Focus and preparation have to be at a high level. There's no excuse for not playing with passion at this time of the season." - Brian Billick, coach of the AFC North-leading Ravens, on his team's mentality with three weeks left in the regular season.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Coach Marvin Lewis has done one of his finest coaching jobs of the season in the wake of the crushing loss at Baltimore.

Though the Bengals are now 7-6 and a game behind the Ravens in the AFC North, heading into the game Sunday at home against San Francisco, Lewis has his players looking positively at their final three games.

There is a sense among the players that they've come too far and accomplished too much to go in the tank at this point.

Though both the division title and wildcard spot are long shots, Lewis has his team continuing to focus on the next opponent with an eye toward a strong finish.

The Lewis spin started post-game in Baltimore.

"(Lewis) came into the locker room and said, `We're all disappointed. This isn't what we came here to do. We didn't get the job done. The bottom line is we lost. Let it go. Let's go back to work Wednesday and get ready for San Francisco','" tight end Matt Schobel said.

The Bengals have listened. Since starting 0-3, they have not lost two in a row in the last 10 weeks. After beating Cleveland to go 1-3, the Bengals lost one, won two, lost one, won four and lost one.

"If we sit around and worry about (losing to the Ravens) and worry that we can't catch Baltimore, and then they get beat this weekend and we get beat, then it doesn't do us any good," Schobel said. "We have to go out this week and hope things will take of themselves if we do our part."

The last time a Bengals team played a game with playoff implications in the season's last month was 1990.

"That's what these guys work for, to play games that mean something in December," Lewis said. "You'd like to be doing it with a three-game cushion, but we're not. We don't need to press. We pressed (Sunday). We can't press. We have to play."

Besides remaining in the playoff hunt, the Bengals will be playing before a sold-out stadium of fans that have bought into Lewis' program. They have sold-out five or eight home games, the most in the four-year history of Paul Brown Stadium.

A strong finish, even if it ends short of the playoffs, will give the organization a positive springboard into the Lewis regime's second offseason. There will be free agents to woo, draft picks to sign, a primetime TV game to land, tickets to be sold and revenue streams to create. Those efforts continue by focusing on the 49ers.

"They are a better football team than their record right now," Lewis said of the 6-7 49ers. They are 0-6 on the road, where they've fallen behind and committed more turnovers.

The pressure is on the Bengals, though, to keep pace with Baltimore and hope for help.

It's pressure they welcome.

"You want to have this kind of atmosphere," Lewis said of playing games in December with post-season implications. "You grow and mature through it."

Series History
10th meeting. The San Francisco 49ers lead the Bengals 7-2. The 49ers are 2-0 in Super Bowl appearances against the Bengals, winning 26-21 in Super Bowl XVI at Pontiac, Mich., and 20-16 in Super Bowl XXIII at Miami. The last meeting was Dec. 5, 1999, at Cincinnati's Cinergy Field, a 44-30 Bengals victory that broke a seven-game regular season losing streak to San Francisco. Only 11 of 53 Bengals players remain on the roster from the Dec. 5, 1999 game.

Strategy
The Bengals need to get a lead and try to make San Francisco's offense one dimensional in the pass. Even if Jeff Garcia gets hot, the Bengals think the more any quarterback throws the ball the more likely he is to make a mistake or be forced into a mistake. The Bengals offensive line, likely to start backup Scott Rehberg at left tackle, need to give Jon Kitna time in the pocket, which he did not have at Baltimore in getting sacked six times and fumbling three times (two lost). Better blocking from the Bengals line also is needed to get the run game going again. The Bengals have been held to 100 and 113 yards in the past two games.

Levi Jones walked into Paul Brown Stadium on crutches Tuesday. He walked out under his own power after treatment. On Wednesday, he was walking well and joked he might be running by Saturday and playing Sunday. Still, the Bengals starting left tackle was listed as doubtful for the 49ers on the official injury report.

"If there is any chance I can go, I will," Jones said. He had arthroscopic surgery to repair a cartilage tear in his right knee on Monday morning.

Scott Rehberg is expected to start at left tackle against the 49ers. Rehberg came in cold against the Ravens in the third quarter after Jones was hurt. Rehberg had not played tackle since the preseason and struggled against a fast, aggressive Baltimore defense that had six sacks. Rehberg gave up two of them, which resulted in lost Jon Kitna fumbles.

The Bengals signed offensive lineman Alex Sulfsted as a free agent Tuesday, but Sulfsted said he didn't expect to play so quickly. Moving right tackle Willie Anderson to the left side also remains a possibility.

The San Francisco defense, while considered fast, is not as quick and powerful as Baltimore's. But the Bengals offensive line will have to do a much better job of protecting Kitna and blocking in the run game.

Matchups to watch
- Bengals rush defense vs. 49ers RB Kevan Barlow. Barlow had his best career day with 154 rushing yards and a touchdown against Arizona. The Bengals had their worst day of the year against the run, giving up 223 at Baltimore. Whatever success the Bengals defense has had this year against good offenses has come when they've taken the run away (Kansas City, first game against Baltimore, second game at Pittsburgh, first game at Cleveland, Buffalo). Otherwise, it's been bad. That's why they're ranked 24th in rush defense (126.2 yards). SF is No. 4 in rush offense at 142.

- Bengals K Shayne Graham vs. the elements. Look for snow and 35-degree temperatures in the wind Sunday afternoon. Graham has been automatic, whereas the 49ers are now on their third kicker, Todd Peterson. The Bengals will need every point they can muster. Graham is now 19-of-21 on field goals after making both attempts at Baltimore. He is perfect on 32 extra points and leads the team with 89 points through 13 games - the most scored by a Bengals player in an entire season since kicker Doug Pelfrey had 110 points in 1996.

- Bengals CB Tory James vs. 49ers WR Terrell Owens. These kinds of matchups are why the Bengals signed James in free agency. His has slipped a bit in recent weeks but has given the Bengals their best overall corner play since Ashley Ambrose in 1996. Owens is a big, physical receiver, and the Bengals will need James to be sharp.

Bengals Quick Hits

  • Wide receivers Chad Johnson (73) and Peter Warrick (70) are the first duo of Bengals receivers in franchise history with 70 catches apiece in the same season.
  • 49ers coach Dennis Erickson will see several familiar faces Sunday when his team lines up against the Bengals. Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski worked as Erickson's offensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks and at three colleges. Bengals wide receivers coach Alex Wood coached for Erickson at three colleges.
  • Defensive tackle Glen Steele is the Bengals' nominee for the Ed Block Courage Award, a league-wide citation sponsored by team athletic trainers.
  • Tight end Tony Stewart, known among his teammates as "Mr. Community," is the team's nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Stewart's latest of many community projects is the Minorities in Mathematics, Science and Engineering at Hughes Center, a Cincinnati public high school.
  • The Bengals have won 6 of 8 games since their bye and 7 of 10 since an 0-3 start.
  • The Bengals placed their first two players on the Injured Reserve list on Tuesday. Done for the season are guard Matt O'Dwyer (foot) and linebacker Dwayne Levels (knee). The Bengals were the last NFL team to put a player on IR this season.
  • Three other players on the team's injury report are probable: running back Brandon Bennett (shoulder), cornerback Artrell Hawkins (knee) and linebacker Adrian Ross (neck).
  • LT Levi Jones is doubtful after undergoing arthroscopic surgery Monday to repair a cartilage tear in his right knee. He had started 25 consecutive games at left tackle through his first two seasons. The loss to the team's first-round 2002 draft pick is one the team can least afford. The Bengals are not deep on the line.
  • CB Jeff Burris (concussions) is not listed on the injury report. He played Sunday at Baltimore and said he felt fine afterwards.
  • CB Artrell Hawkins (knee, flu) returned Wednesday to practice and will play against the 49ers.

Quote to Note
"Jeff's tough. Jeff (Garcia) and Jon (Kitna) have a lot in common in that they're very tough individuals, very competitive guys." - 49ers coach Dennis Erickson on quarterbacks Jeff Garcia (49ers) and Jon Kitna (Bengals).

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