Around the AFC North

The undefeated Ravens sit alone atop the AFC North thanks to Sunday's victory over the Chargers and a Bengals loss to New England. The Steelers sat this week out, but still gained a half-game in the standings on both Cleveland and Cincinnati. Read on as we spin you around the division.


BALTIMORE RAVENS

HOT TOPIC

The Ravens have taken over sole possession of first place in the AFC North for the first time since they won the division in 2003.

The transformation from last year's 6-10 team to this year's 4-0 one goes back to the off-season, when the Ravens traded a fourth-round pick to the Tennessee Titans for quarterback Steve McNair.

He brings a confidence and calm in the huddle that has surfaced in two come-from-behind victories the past two weeks. Without McNair, the Ravens could be 2-2 instead of sitting at the top of the division.

"He's definitely a fighter," tight end Todd Heap said. "It's really neat to see a quarterback (like that); how he handles himself down the stretch. I like having a quarterback that brings that toughness to us and that leadership."

It'll be interesting how McNair follows up his dramatic finishes when the Ravens play the Denver Broncos on Monday night.

Against Cleveland in Week 3, McNair drove the Ravens 47 yards in the final three minutes to set up a game-winning field goal. The Ravens had trailed by 11 points in the fourth quarter.

Against San Diego in Week 4, McNair drove the Ravens 60 yards in the final three minutes and hit tight end Todd Heap for the game-winning, 10-yard touchdown. The Ravens had trailed by six points in the fourth quarter.

"You can't get all nervous because you only got two minutes to go with no timeouts," McNair said. "A lot of people shy away from that; I live for that. I've been doing that all my career."

The troubling part about the Ravens' comeback wins is the lack of consistency by the offense. The Ravens look ragged in the first three quarters before rallying in the fourth quarter.

For the season, McNair has completed 55 percent of his passes (73-for-131) for 746 yards. He has five touchdowns and three interceptions.

"It's not an exciting offensive ball club, but we get the job done," McNair said. "That's what we have to believe in. The scary thing about it is we haven't played, offensively, half the way we could play. If we could play up to our potential, it's scary how good this ball club could be."

The Ravens realize that they can't be skating by if they want to remain a playoff-caliber team.

"The last couple of weeks have been crazy," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "I can't take this. There's too much pressure on me. I'm too old for this."

In addition to earning some respect by winning this battle of unbeaten teams, the Ravens recorded their first four-game winning streak since the 2000 Super Bowl season.

"All the experts said we were the worst 3-0 team in the NFL because the teams we beat had no wins," receiver Derrick Mason said. "Now, we beat the team that was being called the best 2-0 team. So maybe we will get some respect now. We aren't expecting it, but it would be nice."

PLAYER NOTES

--LG Edwin Mulitalo is out indefinitely with an elbow injury. He will be replaced by Jason Brown.

--LG Jason Brown will be the starter for at least the next couple of games. He will replace Edwin Mulitalo, who injured his elbow and is out indefinitely.

--TE Todd Heap remains the Ravens' top target in the red zone. He has scored a touchdown in three straight games.

--RB Jamal Lewis continues to struggle this season, finishing with a season-low 34 yards against the Chargers. He received 15 of the team's 18 carries by running backs.

--K Matt Stover had his streak of a field goal in eight straight games end.

--LB Terrell Suggs was limited because of a hamstring injury. He rotated with Jarret Johnson.



CINCINNATI BENGALS

HOT TOPIC

The Bengals have two long weeks to deal with one of the most embarrassing losses of the Marvin Lewis era.

The Bengals were out-coached, out-played and lost 38-13 Sunday to New England. The loss drops Cincinnati to 3-1 and into second place in the AFC North behind 4-0 Baltimore.

The Bengals do not play Sunday. They will play next October 15 at Tampa Bay.

At the bye week in each of his first three seasons as Bengals coach, Lewis has focused his team on a various weakness in the early part of the schedule.

For the next two weeks, until the Bengals play the Buccaneers, look for Lewis to concentrate on the fundamentals of tackling and ball protection.

Whatever the emphasis, Lewis has been successful. In the five games after the bye in the 2003-05 seasons, Lewis' Bengals have won 11 of 15 games.

"I think it's going to hit us at a good time," Lewis said of the bye. "We've got a lot of guys (injured). We've got a chance to get some guys recovered, get some guys rested and come out fresh."

In the blowout loss Sunday to New England, the Bengals played without starting center Rich Braham, starting strong safety Dexter Jackson, starting outside linebacker Rashad Jeanty and top special teams player Tab Perry, a wide receiver. Lewis also deactivated No. 3 wide receiver Chris Henry, who was a passenger in the vehicle driven by linebacker Odell Thurman, when the linebacker was cited for DUI early on the morning of September 25. Thurman was suspended until next summer by the NFL.

"Don't worry about all the other stuff," Lewis said. "Now we can just concentrate on the 12 football games left to play."

Jackson (ankle), Jeanty (foot) and Perry (hip) could be back for Tampa Bay. The prognosis on Braham is not good, and it is believed he has a fractured bone in the lower leg. The Bengals could have tailback Chris Perry (ankle) back from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list for the game on October 22 against Carolina.

The Bengals squandered two early drives, settling for field goals on both. After leading 6-0, the Bengals were outscored 38-7 and lost 38-13. The Patriots rushed for 236 yards and gained 424 yards in total offense. Cincinnati has allowed 406 yards rushing and five rushing touchdowns in the past two games.

The run defense is the major problem the Bengals must correct.

But Lewis, quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Chad Johnson also tried to spin the blowout loss into a positive late Sunday.

"It could be a humbling thing for us as a team after the 3-0 start," Johnson said. "This could be more of a positive than a negative."

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Chris Henry was the Bengals' second-leading receiver after three games, and though not listed on the injury report, did not play Sunday. Coach Marvin Lewis declined to say the deactivation was discipline for Henry's involvement as a passenger in the vehicle driven by teammate Odell Thurman when he was cited for a DUI last Monday morning.

"I can only dress 45 guys," Lewis said after the 38-13 loss to New England. "So Chris was inactive today."

So he wasn't among the team's 45 best players?

"Not today, he wasn't," Lewis said.

Henry watched the game from the sideline in street clothes, along with other inactive players. Henry was not available to the media after the game.

--CB Tory James, despite getting an interception on a tip, was beaten repeatedly on big plays. James nearing the end of a fine career, and the defense would probably improve -- especially when playing man-to-man pass defense -- if Johnathan Joseph would start opposite Deltha O'Neal at cornerback.

--QB Carson Palmer, for all of his glowing statistical achievements, has developed some ball-protection issues the past couple of weeks. He has lost three of five fumbles on sacks. Of course, the breakdown of his pass protection has not helped.

--WR Antonio Chatman, who had been out of action since the preseason because of a groin injury, made his Bengals debut. He had one punt return for seven yards.

"I played more than I thought I would," Chatman said. "It was great to be out there again. I felt good when I was out there. I was a little nervous at first. But as the game went along, I started to get more comfortable."

Chatman was the fourth receiver, in place of Chris Henry.

--S Kevin Kaesviharn flattened New England wide receiver Reche Caldwell on a pass play with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter. The hit knocked Caldwell backward onto the turf and drew a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. Kaesviharn felt the hit was clean.

"Obviously they (officials) didn't feel that way," he said. "You've got to live with it."

The penalty gave the Patriots first down at the Bengals' 25-yard line. New England running back Laurence Maroney scored on the next play to give the Patriots a 21-13 lead with 4:27 remaining in the third quarter.

--WR Kelley Washington saved a third quarter punt from reaching the end zone for a touchback. But officials called Washington for an illegal block above the waist on the kickoff after New England took a 7-6 lead in the second quarter, and for offensive holding on another Patriots kickoff in the fourth quarter.



CLEVELAND BROWNS

HOT TOPIC

The Browns have to play one more game before they begin their bye week, a time they will use to mend their ailing secondary. As it is now, they will probably have to face the Panthers in Charlotte without starting right cornerback Gary Baxter, and possibly without left cornerback Leigh Bodden.

Bodden left the game against the Raiders in the first half with an ankle injury. He returned for one series and had to leave again. He wore a boot on his ankle after the game.

A pectoral injury that forced Baxter to miss the entire preseason flared up when he tried tackling Bengals receiver Chris Henry in the second game. He is taking the recovery slowly this time.

"I'm progressing," Baxter said. "My arm feels weak and it feels like it's not part of my body. I'm not going to try to come back too soon and have this linger. When I come back, I don't want to have a harness on or treatment or rehab. I want to be able to go out full speed and just play. I want to be healthy like I was."

Unfortunately for the Browns, Panthers receiver Steve Smith has fully recovered from a hamstring injury that kept him in street clothes earlier in the season. Daven Holly will start if Baxter cannot play. Baxter was inactive against the Ravens and Raiders.

Holly gave up a touchdown pass to Randy Moss that gave Oakland a 14-0 lead. The Raiders led 21-3 before the Browns scored three touchdowns to escape Oakland with a 24-21 victory, their first of the season. Charlie Frye threw one touchdown pass to Darnell Dinkins, one to Kellen Winslow and one to Joe Jurevicius. Frye also threw an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter for the second straight week, but the Browns survived.

When Bodden was injured, it forced coach Romeo Crennel to use Holly and Ralph Brown at cornerback. Antonio Perkins played in nickel situations. They would have been more exposed had they been facing an experienced quarterback. Instead, Andrew Walter was making his first NFL start. Walter completed just nine of 23 passes.

Holly is a work in progress. The Browns would prefer that work get done in preseason, but that is not what is happening. Holly gave up 137 yards on eight catches in the Ravens game, and was victimized on three completions from Steve McNair to Mark Clayton in the drive the Ravens used to kick the game-winning field goal.

Holly would not be playing if cornerback Daylon McCutcheon were not placed on injured reserve because he did not recover sufficiently from knee surgery. And though the loss is not as significant as trying to play without McCutcheon and Baxter, Justin Hamilton is nursing an ankle injury that forced him to miss the Oakland game. Hamilton added depth to the secondary and was a contributor on special teams.

Meanwhile, the Browns are still feeling like they have ground to make up in the AFC North. They snapped a three-game losing streak when they knocked off the Raiders. They believe they should have beaten the Saints and Ravens. They did not, so they are 1-3 heading into Charlotte.

"We've won one game, so you can't say we've improved much," linebacker Andra Davis said. "If we're 3-3, then we can say we're improved, but we can't get caught up in all the talk just because we might have played well in one game. We have to get some victories."

PLAYER NOTES

--RB Reuben Droughns returned to the lineup after missing the game against the Ravens with a shoulder injury. His fumble in the first quarter was returned 31 yards for a touchdown by Raiders linebacker Sam Williams. Droughns finished with 100 yards on 25 carries.

--KR Joshua Cribbs returned one kick 62 yards in the second quarter to set up a 28-yard field goal by Phil Dawson and another kick 53 yards to set up a three-yard touchdown pass from Charlie Frye to Darnell Dinkins.

--PR Dennis Northcutt was clobbered a split-second before fielding a punt, resulting in a penalty on the Raiders. He returned the next punt 58 yards to set up a five-yard touchdown pass to Joe Jurevicius.

--WR Joe Jurevicius missed two games with a rib injury. He returned against the Raiders and caught three passes for 22 yards. His third reception was the go-ahead touchdown catch.

--Rookie LB Kamerion Wimbley sacked Andrew Walter twice. He has three sacks on the season.



PITTSBURGH STEELERS

HOT TOPIC

The Steelers may have lost their past two games to fall two games out in the AFC North behind two teams, but they aren't ready to panic. In fact, coach Bill Cowher went light on them this week, their bye week.

They practiced only on Wednesday and Thursday and Cowher cut Thursday's scheduled two-hour practice in half and sent them home for three days of R&R.

"There were a lot of good things that were done but certainly some things we have to correct," Cowher said of his team's 1-2 record. "I think it's just a matter of addressing those things and we've done that."

A big area he addressed is his punt return team. Ricardo Colclough, who lost a fumble at the Bengals' 7-yard line in the fourth quarter that may have lost that game for the Steelers, no longer will return punts. Rookie Willie Reid, who has not dressed in the first three games, could return punts when they resume play in San Diego Oct. 8. Reid was among the best punt returners in college last season and holds the Florida State punt return records.

Cowher broke down just what he thought of his team's performance through the first three games as they trail both unbeaten Cincinnati and Baltimore in the division.

"We have got nothing out of the return game and the kicking game," Cowher said. "Offensively, we lead the league in turnovers. That is not a good stat to lead the league in. We have had eight in three games. We have had some critical drops on third downs.

"We got the running game going. We did that two out of three weeks. We had the bad outing against Jacksonville. The line has played pretty solid. Defensively, while we have done a lot of good things, we have not done a good job of holding them in the red zone. One of the stats that was glaring to me from the other day was we were in the red zone six times and we scored two touchdowns. They were in the red zone three times and scored three touchdowns. Talking about holding them to field goals when you get down there and scoring when you get down there."

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Nate Washington, who has served as No. 3 man through the first three games, leads the team with three dropped passes, including one in the end zone against the Bengals. He has six receptions for 72 yards and a TD.

--SS Mike Logan, who angered coach Bill Cowher when he was penalized for taunting as the Steelers began their final drive last Sunday, is a candidate to become inactive so punt returner Willie Reid can dress for the next game.

--WR Hines Ward, who has nine receptions for 99 yards, complained that he's getting double-teamed often.

--RB Duce Staley has not dressed the past two games, but it's possible he could suit up for the next one. He's had more practice time this week.

--WR Cedrick Wilson remains the team's best deep threat, even though he's caught just four passes in three games. He averages 21.3 yards a catch and he's also drawn two long pass interference penalties.


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