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Billick has QB decision to make


A week after Tony Banks threw an interception on first-and-goal at the Redskins one-yard line, the Ravens quarterback fumbled within a yard of the Titans end zone and cost his team a chance to claim the lead in the AFC Central Division. Instead, Baltimore is a game-and-a-half behind first-place Tennessee and only a half game in front of third-place Pittsburgh.

Sunday's 14-6 loss to the Titans made it four consecutive games in which the Ravens have not scored a touchdown, and helped create a quarterback controversy for coach Brian Billick. Billick pulled Banks after three of four third-quarter drives ended with interceptions. Linebacker Randall Godfrey returned one of those interceptions 24 yards for a touchdown.

Backup Trent Dilfer entered the game and led the Ravens on a 47-yard drive that ended in replay review. On fourth down, wide receiver Qadry Ismail was ruled to have been out of the back of the end zone.

"It's like a hex on us at the goal line now," lamented right tackle Harry Swayne. "It's like spirits come down to spook us. They say, 'not today.' We know we can get down there. When we get there, it's, like, 'What could it be now to keep us out?' Most of the time it's us."

Billick hesitated to make a permanent move to Dilfer immediately after the game. "Sometime between now and next Sunday," was all he would say when asked about his timetable. "That decision will be based on where we are as a team, who can get the job done against the opponent we're playing. There are a lot of factors involved."

Dilfer hadn't thrown a pass since last November, before he was benched in Tampa, and Banks hasn't thrown a touchdown pass since Sept. 24 against Cincinnati. It appears Billick's options are limited.

Baltimore's defense continues to answer the bell and keep the Ravens close. Rod Woodson recovered a fumble at the Titans 39-yard line in the fourth quarter and minutes later safety Kim Herring intercepted a Steve McNair pass at the Tennessee 34. The Ravens defense held the Titans running game to just 90 yards and allowed less than 200 total yards. The frustration is starting to mount for one of the game's top units, but it hasn't boiled over, as of yet.

"I think when you think about that you can't be as good as you try to be on your side of the ball," said Pro-Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis. "I will never say it never comes up, but I don't think we linger on it. Our focus is just going to go out and play and do what we do best, which is play great defense."

Defensive tackle Tony Siragusa gave his teammates and the fans at PSINet Stadium a scare when he left the game on a stretcher in the second quarter. He was taken to nearby Maryland Shock Trauma Center where he was given x-rays and an MRI, but returned to the game in the third quarter.

"I didn't want my boys to have all the fun out there," said Siragusa of his decision to return to the game. "A lot of guys play with pain out there and there are a lot of guys on this team I owe a lot to. I just wanted to go out there and fight"

Up next: Pittsburgh, 4-3

Tennessee Titans

The Titans won their sixth consecutive game on Sunday in Baltimore with their defense.

Tennessee picked up Tony Banks' fumble at their goal line in the first quarter and intercepted him four other times to keep the Ravens out of the end zone and help their beleaguered offense.

The Titans offense entered the game without receiver Carl Pickens and with top receiver Kevin Dyson on injured reserve, and one play into the game the Titans were without their best player, running back Eddie George. George sprained the MCL in his right knee and spent the remainder of the game on the sidelines watching Rodney Thomas carry the ball.

Thomas, a scatback compared to the bruising George, managed just 58 yards, and the Titans, who got 30 carries from George against Jacksonville, had only 33 total offensive snaps.

"It's too early to tell right now," said George of keeping his string of 72 consecutive games in tact. "I'll get with the trainers and go from there. I'll be in there. I want to play if I can."

Tennessee leads the NFL in time of possession with George in the lineup, and their defensive philosophy is based on taking chances, because they're not on the field for long stretches. They need George if the Titans are to continue to play at the level they have since losing in Buffalo on opening day, and Sunday's 191-yard performance by the offense could use a little something from Pickens, as well.

"Those guys are a big part of what we do; Eddie is a big part of what we do," offered quarterback Steve McNair, "but it's like I've been saying, nobody said it was going to be easy. You have to overcome. We always want to overcome."

Randall Godfrey and the defense did the overcoming for Tennessee against Baltimore. Godfrey had two of the Titans' three third-quarter picks and took one 24 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

"Turnovers are huge," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. "When you score on defense, what's the percentage of wins? It's up in the 90 percent area over the last 10 or 11 years."

Godfrey has become the heart and soul of the Titans defense, replacing defensive end Jevon Kearse, who has been largely ineffective in his second season. "We brought Randall in here because of the tight end matchups that we're going to have in the AFC Central," explained Williams. "He stepped up big today and played not only in the passing game, he played very well in the run game also."

Godfrey and the rest of the Titans get the stiffest test yet to their winning streak when they face Stephen Davis and the Redskins rushing attack next Monday night.

Up next: at Washington, 6-2

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers defense pitched its second consecutive shutout on Sunday, beating the Cleveland Browns, 22-0, and moving to within a half game of the Ravens.

Quarterback Kent Graham was just three of 12 for only 46 yards when he was pulled in favor of backup Kordell Stewart. Stewart didn't offer much in the way of a passing threat, as he was only seven of 13 for 74 yards, and the Steelers scored just one offensive touchdown.

"It's not pretty football," agreed head coach Bill Cowher. "It's not Rams football, where you expect guys scoring every two or three minutes. We're using up a lot of the clock and that's how we play the game."

Running back Jerome Bettis, who has 620 yards in his last six games, out-gained the entire Cleveland offense with 105 yards, and continues to be the story of the season in Pittsburgh.

"We were supposed to put up about 30, 40 points," said Bettis of the opportunities given to the offense by the Steelers defense. "When we go up against these teams that are playoff-caliber teams, we have to play better offensively."

In an effort to re-ignite the offense, Cowher has determined that Stewart gives his team the best chance to win next Sunday and will make him the starter once again.

"I'm just trying taking this thing one week at a time," he said of his decision to replace Graham, who has thrown just one touchdown pass on the year. "I feel right now that (Stewart) will give us our best opportunity to win."

The Steelers scored just a single touchdown and five field goals against the Browns, but might not need as many against the Ravens on Sunday. That's because things are much more stable on the other side of the ball, where the defense has allowed only a meaningless score in the final nine seconds in Jacksonville, over the course of the Steelers' four-game winning streak.

Sunday's win over the Browns was the Steelers' second consecutive shutout, something that hasn't been accomplished in Pittsburgh since the powerful 1976 team turned the trick.

"Right now we're the bullies on the block," exclaimed strong safety Lee Flowers. "We want to set the tempo every time we step on the field."

Cleveland quarterback Doug Pederson was intercepted three times, which led to three Steelers field goals. It was much more difficult for Pederson and the Browns than the stat sheet would indicate, as they were unable to cross midfield until 12 minutes remained in the game.

The Steelers now find themselves in the thick of the postseason chase, with two key AFC Central games ahead on their schedule. They travel to Baltimore on Sunday to face a team that blanked them on opening day, and then make the journey to Nashville the following.

"I feel blessed, man," said middle linebacker LeVon Kirkland. "We've won four in a row. We're playing well. I think we can still do better. We have a long way to go, so we're not patting ourselves on the head just yet."

Up next: at Baltimore, 5-3

Cleveland Browns

The story in Cleveland this week is much the same as it was last week. The Browns have lost five consecutive games and have been outscored 143-41 in the process. Head coach Chris Palmer's offense has been decimated by injury and, as a result, has been decimated en route to the end zone, where the Browns have been just twice in five weeks.

"I go to church," he said. "I don't beat my wife. I try to be a decent guy."

It hasn't been enough to turn a streak of bad luck, which has seen franchise quarterback Tim Couch injured on the final play of practice, running back Errict Rhett tear a tendon in his foot, left guard Jim Pyne tear the ACL in his knee while celebrating a touchdown, and four other cogs in the offensive machine go down.

The Browns managed just 104 yards of offense in a 22-0 loss in Pittsburgh on Sunday, their lowest output since rejoining the league 24 games ago. Quarterback Doug Pederson, the starter now that Couch is gone for the season, completed just nine of his 20 passes for only 61 yards. Three of his passes were longer than 10 yards while the remaining six were less than six yards per completion and three were intercepted, which led directly to 16 Pittsburgh points.

"I was just frustrated that we couldn't get anything generated offensively," said Pederson after his first start for the Browns.

"I don't know if a different guy being in the huddle is part of that or what. Now we'll get more time working with that group this next week."

The Browns' inability to mount or sustain a drive left a young defense on the field far too long against the Steelers. Cleveland spent almost 40 minutes of the game trying to find a way to slow down Jerome Bettis, who ran for 105 yards. Penalties, which have been a constant problem the last five weeks, were again an issue, as the Browns were hit with two questionable roughing-the-passer flags.

They were also hit with an unsportsmanlike penalty for a late hit on a punt return, a five-yard penalty for too many men in the huddle, and numerous illegal motion and neutral-zone infractions.

Palmer's Browns are just 4-20 in a season-and-a-half and their prospects for more wins are not in the foreseeable future. That didn't stop owner Al Lerner from giving his coach a vote of confidence.

"No doubt we have the right coach," he said. "I think it would be a travesty if the coach who got us up and running isn't the coach who enjoys the fruits of his labor," Lerner said.

Up next: Cincinnati, 1-6

Cincinnati Bengals

Give the Bengals some credit, when they win, they win big. Running back Corey Dillon ran for 278 yards against a Denver defense that was ranked second in the league against the run.

Cincinnati rolled up 407 rushing yards in Sunday's 31-21 win over Denver, the most by a team in a single game since 1950.

"It was embarrassing," said linebacker Bill Romanowski. "You might as well take a dagger and rip your heart out and throw it on the ground and stomp on it."

Dillon's 278 yards broke Walter Payton's 23-year-old single-game rushing total and will go into the trophy case with Jim Brown's rookie single-game rushing record, which Dillon passed in 1997.

"Their defense was over-pursuing and, in some cases, they gave me the opportunity to cut it back," Dillon said. "I just tried to make a big play and ended up with 278 yards."

Dillon ran for 108 yards in the fourth quarter, thanks to touchdown runs of 41 and 65 yards, and had five runs of longer than 30 yards on the afternoon.

"He usually had one guy to beat," said left tackle John Jackson. "He usually beat the hell out of him."

First-round draft pick Peter Warrick had his best day as a pro, which was turned into a footnote, thanks to Dillon. Warrick ran 77 yards for a touchdown on a reverse, the longest such play in Bengals history. He wasn't worried about the lack of attention directed his way; he was reveling in his first win in the NFL.

"It's a sense of relief," he said. "Maybe people will have confidence in us now and say, 'They'll be good.' And we will be good."

Warrick also caught one of the two passes completed by Cincinnati quarterbacks. The Bengals didn't think they would have the chance to run the ball as often as they did after the Broncos went 80 yards on 12 plays to take a 7-0 first-quarter lead.

They followed it up in the second with a three-yard Mike Anderson touchdown run for a 14-3 lead, and it looked like the game would be won or lost by quarterback Akili Smith. But the Bengals hung in the game with Denver and forced three second-half turnovers, which allowed the Bengals to score 14 points and take over the game.

"We knew they were a high-powered offense," said coach Dick LeBeau after his first win as a head coach. "I was proud of the way our guys took a punch and came back. They kept getting the ball back for our offense."

Take-aways, as opposed to give-aways, had been a rare occurrence in Cincinnati until Sunday. The Broncos entered the game plus-14, while the Bengals were minus-10, a telling stat as to why the Broncos were 4-3 and the Bengals 0-6.

"We made some adjustments," said safety Chris Carter. "It's just a matter of guys making plays, really. Nothing more than that. We talked a little bit more to each other."

The Bengals hope to have Smith back under center next Sunday in Cleveland. He left the game in the third quarter with a pinched nerve in his neck. It would hamper an offense that has finally found its way, scoring 31 points in a game after scoring just 37 in their previous six games.

"Everybody was focused and determined," said Dillon of his teammates' resolve to play better. "Everybody was fed up with being stepped on."

Up next: Cleveland, 2-6

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