Around the AFC North
The Ravens face their first real test of the season Sunday, when they play the San Diego Chargers in a battle of undefeated teams.
The Ravens' first three wins came against teams that previously had not had a win this season.
But the Ravens have a renewed attitude after coming back from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat the winless Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
"We grew up today as a team," quarterback Steve McNair said. "All that plays a hand in how good this football team can be."
The Ravens have already proven to be a dominant defense, giving up a total of two touchdowns in their first three games. They have produced 16 sacks and 11 turnovers.
What the Ravens needed to fix was a staggering offense. But McNair put his authoritative stamp on this offense Sunday, essentially willing the team to a game-winning 12-play, 47-yard drive late in the fourth quarter.
On the final drive, he was 6-of-9 for 52 yards, stepping up his play as well as his presence in the huddle.
"You could see it his face," tight end Todd Heap said. "He looked in every guy's eyes and told everyone what to expect and what we needed to do. It's really something when everybody has confidence in what's going on. To do it under pressure at the end of the game, it's a confidence builder for our offense."
The Ravens' first victory in Cleveland since 2003 kept them tied atop the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals, broke a four-game losing streak in the division and provided a sense of accomplishment unlike any other game this season.
"This was a huge emotional win on the road," coach Brian Billick said. "Don't underestimate what we just did."
Still, there's some skepticism in the Ravens' first 3-0 start in team history. The Ravens' first three wins are against teams that have a combined record of 0-8.
Now comes the tougher part of their schedule. They play the Chargers, Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers before reaching their bye.
"(Going 3-0) means a whole bunch," receiver Derrick Mason said. "It means we started off three games better than what we did last year. But our ultimate goal is 4-0. We're going against a tough opponent in San Diego. We're going to put ourselves in a position, that come November and December, where we control our own destiny."
Kicker Matt Stover hit a wind-aided 52-yard field goal with 20 seconds left to lift the Ravens to a come-from-behind 15-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
Steve McNair was 10-for-16 for 91 yards and a touchdown in a pivotal, 12-point fourth quarter for the Ravens. In the second half, the Ravens allowed 91 yards and stopped Cleveland's best fourth-quarter drive with an end-zone interception by cornerback Chris McAlister.
The Ravens sacked quarterback Charlie Frye seven times, which is the second-most in team history. Receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton combined for 15 catches for 206 yards.
--DE Terrell Suggs injured his right hamstring early in the fourth quarter and did not return. He will be re-evaluated on Monday. Jarret Johnson replaced Suggs.
--DE Jarret Johnson played most of the fourth quarter in place of injured Terrell Suggs, who injured his right hamstring. Suggs' status is unknown for Sunday.
--WR Mark Clayton had an increased presence in the offense for the first time this season. He had a career-best eight catches for 74 yards.
--K Matt Stover has converted 29 straight field goals, the longest streak of his career.
--RB Musa Smith has assumed the No. 2 role in the Ravens' offense. He had three carries for eight yards and two catches for 12 yards.
--RB Mike Anderson has been surpassed by Musa Smith as the No. 2 running back. He didn't have a carry Sunday against Cleveland.
There are some rough spots -- pass protection, inconsistent run defense, uneven plays, caused somewhat by injuries -- but the Bengals look forward to their last game before their bye a pretty happy team.
They are 3-0, tied with Baltimore atop the AFC North, and two full games ahead of 1-2 Pittsburgh. Carson Palmer is healthy, and despite being sacked 11 times, has thrown six touchdown passes and directed an offense averaging 28.3 points a game.
The run defense is better, though Willie Parker (133 yards on 31 carries) and the Steelers gained 170 yards on them Sunday in Cincinnati's 28-20 victory at Heinz Field.
This Sunday, New England visits Cincinnati. It's one of the two first-place intra-conference games the Bengals drew on their schedule for finishing first in the AFC North last season.
The Bengals went into Pittsburgh, where they have now won three of four games under Marvin Lewis, with a banged-up team. Three starters did not play: center Rich Braham, strong safety Dexter Jackson and outside linebacker David Pollack, who is out for the year with a broken neck.
The Bengals had some trouble with the Pittsburgh pass rush, but mainly it was on the edge, not the middle, where second-year center Eric Ghiaciuc made his second career start in place of Braham (knee). Strong-side linebacker Rashad Jeanty had seven tackles in place of Pollack. And Kevin Kaesviharn had eight overall tackles, seven solos, as well as an interception, force fumble and pass defensed.
The Bengals are deeper now than at any time in recent memory. The depth bodes well as the Bengals, like the rest of the league, deal with injuries to key players.
The Bengals are getting solid performances on special teams. Defensive tackle John Thornton blocked a Jeff Reed field goal Sunday, and tight end Tony Stewart recovered a muffed Pittsburgh punt return at the 9-yard line to set up the go-ahead touchdown pass from Palmer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
The wide receiver position, hammered by injuries, got a boost Sunday when Houshmandzadeh came back from a heel injury to debut in 2006 with 94 receiving yards and nine catches, two for touchdowns. The Steelers took Chad Johnson away, so Chris Henry contributed 69 receiving yards on five catches, two of them for touchdowns.
The Bengals are deep and more resilient.
They weathered three major swings to outlast the Steelers. The Super Bowl XL champions made more mistakes, five turnovers to three, and the Bengals cashed in for 21 points off turnovers.
The Bengals, who led the NFL with a plus-24 turnover differential in 2005, are plus-5 after three games (11-6) and have scored 34 points off turnovers.
Quarterback Carson Palmer, despite two interceptions and six sacks, threw for four touchdowns in the Bengals' 28-20 victory Sunday at Heinz Field against the Steelers. The Bengals are 3-0 for the second consecutive season for the first time in the franchise's 39-year history and tied with Baltimore atop the AFC North.
The Bengals turned five turnovers, which included three interceptions of Ben Roethlisberger, into 21 points. Though the Steelers rushed for 170 yards and converted their first six third-down plays into first downs, the Bengals held them to 1-for-10 on third down through the end of the game.
Safeties Madieu Williams and Kevin Kaesviharn and cornerback Deltha O'Neal had the interceptions, and linebacker Brian Simmons and Tony Stewart recovered fumbles on defense and special teams.
The Bengals have won six games in a row against division rivals and 9 of their last 11 on the road.
--WR Chad Johnson was limited to one reception for 11 yards, but he maintained his composure despite double- and triple-coverage and allowed single coverage for Chris Henry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, each of whom caught two touchdown passes.
--LT Levi Jones left the game for a short while with a re-injured ankle but returned and said he would be ready for Week 4 against New England.
--WR Chris Henry had five more catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns and leads the Bengals after three games with a 16.1-yard average. Henry returned to the game after a brutal hit to the chest by Steelers safety Ryan Clark.
--CB Johnathan Joseph was credited with three passes defensed and two tackles. Veteran starter Tory James had just one tackle and was beaten badly for a big play and called for defensive holding on Pittsburgh's opening touchdown drive. It's only a matter of time before the rookie Joseph replaces the aging James in the starting lineup.
--S Kevin Kaesviharn played for Dexter Jackson at strong safety and had eight total tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. If Kaesviharn can keep producing at a high level, the Bengals won't need to rush Jackson back. He has a severely sprained ankle suffered in Week 2 against the Browns.
--DT John Thornton's blocked field goal was the first for the Bengals since he blocked a field goal in a 2003 game against Seattle. Thornton also has the last blocked field goal against the Bengals, which came in 2000 when he played for Tennessee.
--DE Robert Geathers' two sacks give him a career high four in three games. He and Justin Smith are tied for the team lead with four each. Smith had one against the Steelers.
The Browns go from facing Steve McNair, a veteran of 12 NFL seasons, to facing an inexperienced second-year quarterback in Andrew Walter when they head west to meet the Oakland Raiders.
Walter was a third-round draft choice from Arizona State in 2005 and never took a regular season snap as a rookie. Walter played after quartearback Aaron Brooks was injured last week and completed 10 of 27 passes for 162 yards. Walter threw three interceptions, lost a fumble and was sacked six times.
Oakland was on its bye last week. Walter subbed for Aaron Brooks in the second week when Brooks was injured. Now Walter will have more than one full week to prepare as the starter.
The Chargers and Ravens pummeled the Raider quarterbacks in the first two games. The Browns will have to do the same to win in Oakland for the second straight year. They beat the Raiders 9-7 last year on three field goals by Phil Dawson.
The lack of a pass rush was a major disappointment in the first two games. The Browns did not touch Drew Brees in the opener. Although they sacked Carson Palmer four times, the sacks were not meaningful ones. They occurred after the Bengals were in control but still passing.
They got more pressure on McNair but didn't get to him on the final drive.
The lack of a pass rush cannot be blamed on any particular player as much as on the injury situation in the secondary. Starting right cornerback Gary Baxter was inactive in the game against the Ravens because of a pectoral injury. He might not be ready against the Raiders.
Daven Holly started in place of Baxter and Ralph Brown lined up as the nickel back. Neither player was in the Browns' plans as late as June, but Holly was signed on July 13 and Brown a week after training camp started. Both were signed because of uncertainty surrounding Daylon McCutcheon. The concerns proved to be well founded; McCutcheon is on injured reserve because he has not recovered from knee surgery on Aug. 1.
Brown knows he will be a marked man whether he lines up in the slot or outside in nickel situations. Opponents don't have as much film on Holly because he was suspended by the NFL in the opener for violating the league's conduct policy. He played sparingly against the Bengals and was burned badly by McNair.
"I think that's going to continue the whole year," Brown said. "When you look at (left cornerback) you see Leigh Bodden. I think he's one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
"They look at Ralph Brown, Leigh Bodden or Daven Holly. They have their choices. Leigh Bodden is a proven cornerback.
A healthy Willie McGinest would help get to Walter and make the secondary look better. McGinest missed the game against the Bengals with a calf injury. He did not start against the Ravens but he came off the bench for three tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry.
Charlie Frye was sacked seven times and knocked down after passing eight more times in a 15-14 loss to the Ravens in Cleveland Browns Stadium. Former Brown Matt Stover kicked the game-winning field goal from 52 yards out with 20 seconds to play.
The Browns led 14-3 at halftime on a 58-yatrd touchdown pass from Frye to Edwards and a one-yard run by Frye. They held the 11-point lead until Baltimore scored 12 fourth quarter points.
The Ravens held the Browns to 38 yards on 19 carries. Frye's only interception was a critical one. Chris McAllister picked him off in the end zone with 3:21 to play and the Browns ahead 14-12.
--RB Reuben Droughns was inactive because of a shoulder injury. Rookie Jerome Harrison started in Droughns' place.
--QB Charlie Frye ran for a one-yard touchdown run with 27 seconds left in the first half. He is the first Browns quarterback since Otto Graham in 1954 to rush for touchdowns in three consecutive games.
--WR Braylon Edwards caught five passes for 116 yards, giving him back-to-back 100 yard receiving games.
--DE Simon Fraser got his first NFL sack in the third quarter when he dumped Steve McNair for a three-yard loss.
--TE Kellen Winslow Jr., after clamoring for the ball last week, caught seven passes for 92 yards. Three of them were for first downs on third down.
The defending Super Bowl champions have the week to lick their wounds as they enter their bye week riding a two-game losing streak.
And they have to wonder if the problems with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger are physical in nature -- the residue of his June 12 motorcycle accident and/or September 3 appendectomy -- or if something else is wrong.
Roethlisberger set the NFL rookie record with a 98.1 passer rating and was third in the NFL last season with a 98.3 rating. But after two games he has a 34.3 rating. He's 35 of 71 for 349 yards, no touchdowns and five interceptions.
His ratings in his past three games are 30.7, 38.7 and 22.6, the latter in the Super Bowl. Those are three of his five lowest ratings since he entered the league in 2004. He also has lost two straight for the second time in his young career, dropping his overall record to 27-6, 22-5 in the regular season.
"I put the pressure on myself to produce, and right now I'm not doing that," Roethlisberger said. "So I'm going to continue to put more pressure on myself to play better.
"I need to find that happy medium, without trying to do too much. I have to come out and be smart, and make better plays."
The next one won't be easy because the Steelers have to play at San Diego when they resume October 8. Roethlisberger directed them to a late drive that ended in Jeff Reed's game-winning field goal in San Diego last season.
Roethlisberger made some poor decisions in the Steelers' showdown loss to Cincinnati last week. With his team ahead 7-0 in the first quarter, he had a first down at the Bengal's six. He tried to force one to tight end Heath Miller in the end zone and it was intercepted, the first of three.
"I feel like today was a big step for me," said Roethlisberger, who missed the opener after he had his appendix removed. "I felt like we were really clicking on offense with the receivers."
His receivers continued to drop passes from him, a problem that's now plagued the Steelers in their past two games.
"Sometimes, they're open and I make a bad throw, so I tell them that we're even," Roethlisberger said.
Willie Parker ran for 133 yards and two touchdowns, the Steelers out-gained the Bengals, but Cincinnati accepted five Pittsburgh turnovers and prevailed in Heinz Field, 28-20.
Carson Palmer, was sacked six times, lost a fumble and was intercepted twice, but he also threw four touchdown passes, two each to Chris Henry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw no touchdowns, three interceptions and was sacked three times.
The Steelers led 17-14 midway through the fourth quarter when the Bengals pounced on a fumbled punt by Ricardo Colclough. Palmer turned that into a touchdown pass. Verron Haynes then lost a fumble and Palmer made the Steelers pay for that too by hitting Houshmandzadeh with a 30-yard touchdown pass on the next play.
--WR Hines Ward is off to a slow start. The four-time Pro Bowl player and Super Bowl MVP has nine catches for 99 yards after three games.
--RB Willie Parker has become the team's lone threat in the backfield. He has 71 carries (for 268 yards). Second on the team is Verron Haynes with only 8 carries (44 yards).
--PK Jeff Reed finally has a field goal. He's 2-4 after three games. He went 0-1 through the first two and then missed his first one last week to start 0-2. He had never gone more than his first game without kicking one.
--PR Ricardo Colclough probably saw his last day as a punt returner when his muff led to the Bengals' go-ahead TD in the fourth quarter. Santonio Holmes replaced him after that and is likely to become their steady punt returner.
--RB Verron Haynes is the team's leading receiver after three games. He has 10 receptions (59 yards).
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