Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ravens' Ray Lewis Eats Crow in Cleveland

Yesterday, Ray Lewis made his debut as a Yardbarker blogger by declaring, "It's OUR time now." He even included a photo of the complete message that he wrote to his teammates on the board that is by the entrance to the Baltimore Ravens' locker room: "The only thing close is horseshoes. Take this win and let's roll. It's our time." Lewis probably meant to reference the cliche that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Anyway, there are few things more galling to Cleveland Browns fans than watching the Baltimore Ravens march into town, talk trash and then head back home with a victory. Remarkably, that did not happen today. Instead, the underdog Browns emerged with a 27-13 victory to even their record at 2-2 while dropping the Ravens to the same mark.

The Ravens' response to Lewis shooting off his mouth was to repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot against a Browns team that is more used to making mistakes than taking advantage of them. Baltimore's troubles began with the opening kickoff, which Cleveland's Josh Cribbs returned 45 yards to put the Browns in business near midfield. Browns quarterback Derek Anderson, who still displays a perplexing tendency to throw passes into quadruple coverage, seems to be the football equivalent of a streak shooter in basketball: when he's on, he can put up points in a hurry but when he's off he can take his team right out of the game. Anderson went 4-5 for 41 yards, including a 2 yard touchdown to Joe Jurevicius, as Cleveland took a 7-0 lead.

On the Ravens' first possession, they converted twice on third down to move to the Cleveland 27 yard line but that promising drive stalled when Steve McNair's pass to Todd Heap was intercepted by Leigh Bodden. On the very next play, Braylon Edwards used a gorgeous double move to break free before hauling in a 78 yard touchdown pass to put Cleveland up 14-0. McNair was noticeably hindered throughout the game by his left groin pull but he did engineer several drives deep into Cleveland territory. Unfortunately for Baltimore, only one of them resulted in a touchdown. Baltimore made just two of four field goal attempts, which is unusual considering that Matt Stover is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history (Cleveland's Phil Dawson, also one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, missed one field goal).

Baltimore finally got on the board when Stover made a field goal with 12:48 remaining in the second quarter. Cleveland answered by driving to the Baltimore 22 before settling for a Dawson field goal to make the score 17-3. That is when Baltimore committed the gaffe that for all intents and purposes put the game out of reach (considering McNair's condition): Yamon Figurs fumbled the kickoff and the Browns recovered at Baltimore's 31 yard line. Cleveland used a simple but effective strategy, running ex-Raven Jamal Lewis to the left followed by Jamal Lewis to the right. Lewis eventually scored on a one yard touchdown run and Cleveland led 24-3.

Anderson completed 10 of 18 passes for 204 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Jamal Lewis had a 28 yard run plus the touchdown but was generally held in check by his former team (64 yards on 23 carries). Ray Lewis followed up all of his loud talk with a very quiet game: six tackles, no sacks and very little real impact on the outcome.

It is hard to know what to make of this Cleveland team. A horrible week one loss to Pittsburgh preceded a shootout win over Cincinnati, which was then followed by a sloppy loss to Oakland. The last time that the Browns had a .500 record this late in the season is when they started the 2005 season 2-2 in Romeo Crennel's first season as head coach. Cleveland went just 4-8 the rest of the way and started last season 0-3 en route to a 4-12 record. The Browns also started the 2004 season with a 2-2 record under Butch Davis but crashed and burned during a nine game losing streak. The Browns opened the 2004 season with a 20-3 home victory over Baltimore. Amazingly, that is the last time that the Browns had a better than .500 record. What does all of that history mean? It is possible that the Browns have turned the corner--but no one should believe it until they show the ability to focus and execute on a consistent basis. It was amazing to hear Browns players say after the Oakland loss that they had been overconfident prior to the game. What, pray tell, do the Browns have to be overconfident about? A one game winning "streak"? The Browns travel to New England next week, so one would hope that overconfidence will not be a problem prior to that game.

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