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Baltimore toasts its offense


The Ravens' 24-23 win in Tennessee on Sunday gave them their seventh consecutive win on the road against teams in the AFC Central and moved them to within a game-and-a-half of the first-place Titans in the race for the division championship. It was also the first time that a visiting team left Adelphia Coliseum with a win in the stadium's 13-game tenure as the home of the Titans.

"This is a tad bigger than Jacksonville," said defensive end Michael McCrary, "if only because of the situation we're in. This is no longer the old Ravens, where we would lose a game like that at the end."

McCrary and his defensive teammates watched quarterback Trent Dilfer take control at the Titans 19-yard line with less than four minutes to play, after Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair fumbled while being sacked. Needing just a field goal to take a 20-17 lead and turn control back to the top-ranked defense in the league didn't stop coach Brian Billick from going for more, but Dilfer's pass was intercepted by Tennessee safety Perry Phenix who returned it 87 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

"After that play, it's all in the back of our minds that we might lose to this team again," said offensive tackle Jon Ogden. But the Ravens were delivered a break when Al Del Greco's point-after try missed, the first time since 1993 that an extra point has sailed wide on the Titans placekicker.

"I couldn't believe something that good happened to me," said Dilfer.

He didn't waste it. The Ravens quarterback completed six of his next eight passes in driving Baltimore to the Tennessee two-yard line and hit receiver Patrick Johnson for the game-winning touchdown. It was Dilfer's fifth touchdown pass in two games and it earned him his second win in three starts, cementing his place as the Ravens starting quarterback.

For Dilfer, it's a chance to reclaim his career from a mediocre beginning in Tampa. "Poise has a lot of different faces," said Dilfer of what was perceived to be his greatest weakness. "For some, it's that bland stare and undying confidence. For others, it's an absolute will. For me, poise is just trusting the people around me. I've lacked poise in my career because I didn't trust what's going on around me. I told these guys I've worked my whole career to play with a bunch of guys like this."

The Ravens defense continued to do their part, forcing two fumbles at critical points in the game and holding running back Eddie George in check, but no one on that side of the football seemed concerned about their performance. They wanted to talk about the growth of the offense.

"On offense, I think they've found some leaders," said safety Rod Woodson, the leader of the defense. "I think Shannon (Sharpe) and Trent stepped up to the plate today and last week. I know that since I've been here they've been looking for a leader over there. I would hope and pray those guys are our answers."

The win sends Baltimore into a comfortable stretch of their schedule. They'll make one more road trip, to Arizona to face the Cardinals, and they'll host the Cowboys, Browns, Chargers and Jets. They'll also get a bye week in the final six weeks.

Up next: Dallas, 4-6

Tennessee Titans

The Titans didn't take their first loss at Adelphia Coliseum lightly, but in the aftermath of the game, there was some sentiment that Tennessee needed this. "We've been spoiled," offered left tackle Brad Hopkins. "I think sometimes you need stuff like this for fuel, but sometimes when things are going so well, you forget where you come from. This is not a subtle reminder, this is a sledgehammer."

Hopkins was referring to a last-minute field goal to beat Pittsburgh, and interception returns against Washington and Baltimore in October to keep an eight-game winning streak going. It looked like they would get a similar break late in the fourth quarter after safety Perry Phenix intercepted Baltimore quarterback Trent Dilfer and returned it 87 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, but Del Greco missed the extra point.

They still had one more chance with less than 30 seconds to play, as quarterback Steve McNair led the Titans to a game-winning field goal opportunity, something that Del Greco had taken advantage of against Kansas City in week two and against Pittsburgh. But Del Greco, who has made more field goals than any kicker in the league since 1995, sent his kick wide right.

"I can get over what it does to me. It just takes me longer to get over it when I think of how hard the other guys worked and what they did in the game," he said somberly. "I've said before, I get too much credit and too much blame, but I don't think that's the case here."

It wasn't only Del Greco. Both running back Eddie George and McNair lost fumbles and the Titans were penalized eight times for 64 yards. The Titans, like every Baltimore opponent, found running room a precious commodity. George managed just 28 yards on 12 carries, and a 14-0 deficit early in the game helped the Ravens' cause.

One bright spot for coach Jeff Fisher was the performance of Pro-Bowl defensive end Jevon Kearse, whom he had publicly called on the carpet a week before. Kearse sacked Dilfer on the first play of the game and finished the day with three sacks among six tackles and two forced fumbles.

"He's playing hard and he got a lot of pressure on the quarterback," Fisher said after the game. "I don't know what his numbers were, but he was playing real hard."

Up next: Cleveland, 3-8

Pittsburgh Steelers

Perhaps Steelers coach Bill Cowher spoke too soon. A week ago, after his team lost a close game in Tennessee, he told them they would run the table and finish 12-4. That was news to the Philadelphia Eagles, who used it as a motivational tool and came from behind to win in overtime 26-23 on Sunday.

"You start making statements like the Steelers did last week and they can come back to haunt you," said Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent.

The loss was the second in as many weeks for a Steelers team that had won five in a row. It drops them two games out of second place in the division and has reduced their playoff hopes to a wild-card run. What's more distressing for the men in black and gold is that their defense, which hadn't given up a touchdown in four games, allowed the Eagles to score 10 points in the final three minutes of regulation, and drive for a game-winning field goal in overtime.

"I made sure I told the guys during the week that they had outscored their opponents 77-59 in the fourth quarter," stressed defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "I wanted them to know this was going to be a 60-minute affair."

The Steelers' game-plan was obvious. Cowher hammered the Eagles defense with running back Jerome Bettis, who ran for a season-high 134 yards, and asked quarterback Kordell Stewart to make short, controlled throws. Everything was working according to plan after Kris Brown's fourth-quarter field goal gave the Steelers a 10-point lead, despite the fact that the offense had scored just one touchdown for the fifth consecutive game.

Then Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb put together a quick touchdown drive and an onside kick set up the game-tying field goal. "This one is hard to swallow," said Bettis. "You're 10 points up, a little over two minutes to go, they don't have any timeouts; you feel as though you've just put the nail in the coffin."

Nothing has been easy for the Steelers when they play at Three Rivers Stadium, a venue in which they were once invincible. They're 2-3 at home in 2000 and 4-11 since beat Jacksonville in Pittsburgh the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 1998.

They can still make a run to their first playoff game since 1997, but with the Jaguars, Raiders, Redskins and Giants left, it won't be as easy as Cowher's proclamation.

"Running the table, I guess, will have to start next week," said safety Lee Flowers, unwilling to think any different.

Up next: Jacksonville, 3-7

Cleveland Browns

The final seven games of the Browns schedule is so difficult that many observers believed Sunday's game against the Patriots was their final shot at getting a third win. Whether the players believed it or not is uncertain, but they didn't waste the chance.

Quarterback Doug Pederson tossed a nine-yard touchdown pass to tight end Aaron Shea and kicker Phil Dawson booted four field goals to beat New England 19-11. The touchdown pass to Shea broke a string of 14 quarters in which the Cleveland offense was shut out of the end zone.

"It was a burden that was sticking with us and we couldn't shake it," said Shea. "When we scored, we said, 'That's over with, let's play ball.' We played our best game of the season."

Especially on defense, where the front four dominated, sacking quarterback Drew Bledsoe four times and coming up with four turnovers, which the Browns turned into 13 points. They also held New England to just 102 yards on the ground, the lowest total they have allowed in a span of 23 games.

"Those guys played phenomenal," said linebacker Lenoy Jones, who had a sack in the fourth quarter to end the Patriots come-from-behind bid. "It was a group effort. It helps so much when you get turnovers like that. We fought and fought and nobody gave up. They had a great day today."

That kind of effort gave Cleveland good field position, which allowed them to continue running the football. Rookies Travis Prentice and Jamel White combined for 121 yards, which in turn kept the defense off the field for a significant period of time for the first time since their seven-game losing streak began in September.

"I'm going to give the credit to the offensive line," said Pederson, who also completed 20 of 37 passes and a touchdown. "They kept us on the field and we ran the ball well today."

The one down note for the Browns is that they lost guard Jim Bundren, who broke his ankle in the second quarter. He's the third starting offensive lineman to end the season on the injured reserve list.

Many of the players credited owner Al Lerner's mid-week team meeting for helping them focus during a difficult stretch. Lerner wouldn't divulge what he said, but it was clear that his message had something to do with play harder.

"I just shared some thoughts with them," said Lerner, a former Marine. "Coach thought it would be a good idea. It was not a talking down at all."

Whatever it was, the Browns and their fans are hoping, in reality praying, that it can keep them going through what is the toughest stretch of their schedule. Their remaining opponents have a combined record of 33-23, four are playoff teams and all have defenses ranked in the top half of the league.

Up next: at Tennessee, 8-2

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals' 23-6 loss to Dallas on Sunday marked the fifth time in 10 games that they have had fewer than 100 yards passing. It's surprising to most that an offense with a runner the caliber of Corey Dillon could be so inept when as many as eight defenders are keying on one player.

Of course it hurts that the quarterback is Akili Smith, who doesn't seem to be making progress, despite starting every game this season. Smith hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in six games and there are questions about his mechanics, his decision-making ability and has a 47.4 quarterback rating, which is last in the league.

"A lot of downfield routes are called," said coach Dick LeBeau. "Whatever the reason is, the ball is not going there. Either there is pressure or he doesn't like what he's seeing. We're trying to get the ball up the field."

The Bengals passing attack is currently last in the NFL with a per-game average of only 108 yards, and that's with rookie receiver Peter Warrick, who was the fourth pick of last spring's college draft.

Their defense kept them in the game, and they trailed just 7-6 at the half, but things broke down in the third quarter when Smith was sacked and fumbled the ball deep in Cincinnati territory. The Bengals held Dallas running back Emmitt Smith out of the end zone on third-and-goal from the one, but a fake field goal caught them off-guard and put the game out of reach.

Troy Aikman, back in the lineup for the first time since Dallas played Jacksonville, completed 24 of 37 passes for 308 yards, despite the fact that Smith never got rolling.

"You have to credit Troy, because he's a great, experienced player," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, "but I think it's more what we do to ourselves. Troy wasn't doing all that much, and he wasn't doing things we hadn't practiced for all week. We just kept making silly mistakes, and we need to stop or we're going to continue shooting ourselves in the foot."

Instead of winning their third game in four weeks, the Bengals dropped their eighth game in 10, to continue their frustrating season.

Up next: at New England, 2-8

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