It wasn't as if the Ravens were playing the St. Louis Rams this past Sunday at FedEx Field. All Baltimore needed from its offense was a touchdown and a couple of field goals, and they could have beaten the Redskins. Instead, a 10-3 loss dropped the Ravens a half-game behind the Titans and into second place in the AFC Central.
Baltimore trailed 3-0 as the first half came to a close and they had a chance to grab the lead going to the break, but quarterback Tony Banks, who appears to be regressing after a quick start, threw an interception on first-and-goal from the Washington one-yard line with 10 seconds to play, and killed the Ravens momentum.
"This ain't nothing new," said tackle Jon Ogden, who was seen kicking his helmet into the Ravens locker room.
Baltimore hasn't scored a touchdown in more than three games. They haven't posted a touchdown in 186 minutes and 39 seconds of regulation, which translates to the last 36 times they've had the ball.
"Obviously, we've got to score more points," said coach Brian Billick immediately after the game. "That's your first question. We have to do better in the red zone. Our third-down efficiency has to be better and Tony Banks remains my starting quarterback. Why? Because we're a 5-2 team and that's the guy I think gives us the best chance to win."
Banks may also be the only option for a Baltimore squad that has its sights set on the playoffs for the first time. Backup Trent Dilfer hasn't shown enough of a grasp of the offense to impress Billick, and rookie Chris Redman is just that, an unproven player.
The Ravens defense held star running back Stephen Davis to just 91 yards, extending their streak of games to 26 in which they haven't allowed a 100-yard runner. A closer examination, however, shows the Baltimore defense wasn't as strong as it seems. Davis rolled up 89 of those yards in the second half and his 33-yard touchdown run, the game-winner, was the longest allowed by the Ravens since 1998.
"It's definitely frustrating for you as a defense," said linebacker Cornell Brown. "We always want to be the best. We weren't at our best today."
They'll have to be this Sunday, when they face the biggest and, perhaps, the best runner in the AFC in Eddie George.
Up next: Tennessee, 5-1.
The Steelers moved into third place in the AFC Central on Sunday with their 15-0 shutout of the Bengals. Pittsburgh's third consecutive win still doesn't say much for its offense, whose struggles have been well-documented, but their defense is a different story.
Linebacker Joey Porter sacked Akili Smith three times, setting up two field goals and scoring a safety for eight of the Steelers 15 points. The Bengals couldn't throw, which meant Pittsburgh wasn't going to let them run and the Bengals were forced to do the only thing they could do, punt.
"We're playing well," said linebacker LeVon Kirkland. "We're playing aggressively, which is good. We're just letting it fly out there and when you do that, good things are going to happen."
The Steelers defense has been the driving force behind the three-game winning streak. They've allowed only one touchdown, a meaningless score with nine seconds to play in Jacksonville two weeks ago. Their linebackers, led by Kirkland, are beginning to resemble the Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Kevin Greene unit of the "Blitzburgh" years.
"We have no reason to brag or think we're mightier than we are," said Kirkland. "It's still early in the season. A lot can happen."
Some of it bad. The running game, which had blossomed to the top of the AFC and fourth best in the NFL, lost fullback Jon Witman to a broken leg. Witman had surgery on Monday to repair the broken fibula in his right leg. "That really hurts," lamented Jerome Bettis, whose 523 rushing yards and five touchdowns have him near the top of the league. "He was playing with so much confidence. To lose him with the way we were playing really hurts. Inevitably, it will take its toll."
The Pittsburgh offense isn't much without their running game. Even though quarterback Kent Graham earned his first win as the starting quarterback and threw his first touchdown pass of the season, a 77-yard strike to Hines Ward, the Steelers were forced to punt 12 times, a team record.
"That's a great record to have," said coach Bill Cowher sarcastically.
The playoffs are a distinct possibility for the Steelers. "Right now, we're still in the hole at 3-3," offered tackle Wayne Gandy. "About four more in a row might get us out. If we get that, we'll be alright. To get to the playoffs takes 10 wins and we only have three."
The next five games will tell the story. The Steelers play the Browns on Sunday, then travel to Baltimore and Tennessee in back to back weeks, before going home to face the Eagles and Jaguars.
Up next: Cleveland, 2-4
The Bengals were shut out for the third time in six games this season and are on pace to score just 99 points. That's less than one-sixth as many as the Rams. The Bengals had 16 offensive possessions, thanks to 12 punts by Pittsburgh last Sunday. Ten of those possessions ended in punts, five after just three plays by Cincinnati, and three others were cut short by turnovers and another by a safety.
"I'm having a hard time talking to you all," whispered offensive tackle Willie Anderson. "I'm saying the same thing every week."
The Bengals have pinned their future to the lapel of quarterback Akili Smith and so far he's let them down. Smith has lost nine consecutive starts, dating back to last October, and that isn't the most telling statistic. In his 10 starts, he's orchestrated 90 drives, 50 of which have ended with punts, and 33 of those were three plays and out. Only three drives have ended in touchdowns.
His performance on Sunday was so miserable that not only was his benching a downer for his team, it depressed one of the Steelers.
"I couldn't believe some of the opportunities I had," said linebacker Joey Porter. "Akili would rather take the sack than throw the ball. I didn't want him to leave the game."
The Bengals tried to put some of the weight on receiver Peter Warrick's shoulders against Pittsburgh. Warrick caught four passes, ran two reverses and returned a punt. He was also the primary target for Smith and Scott Mitchell 10 other times, but the passes were incomplete. The seven touches represent the most Warrick has had this season.
Cincinnati's defense played well, giving up just a touchdown. Bettis ran for 101 yards, but needed 29 carries to get there. Coach Dick LeBeau wasn't in the mood to hear it after the game.
"We don't look at this thing as offense or defense," he said when asked of the performance. "We look at it as a total game."
Up next: Denver, 3-3
Cleveland coach Chris Palmer has watched his football team drop four consecutive games after a promising 2-1 start. It's been one thing after another, the quarterback, the offensive line, the defensive backfield and the injury bug, and still Palmer continues to hold hope for his struggling second-year team.
"I still feel really good about this team," he said on Monday. "You have to go in and watch the film. What is perceived and what is reality are not necessarily the same."
The Broncos handed the Browns a dose of reality on Sunday with a 100-yard rusher, a 300-yard passer and a pair of 100-yard receivers. The Broncos rolled up 500 yards of total offense on a young defense that thought it had turned the corner.
"It feels like this is a point during last year," linebacker Wali Rainer said.
Quarterback Tim Couch was beaten to the ground by a Denver defense that sacked him five times and intercepted him three others. The pressure was relentless and, according to some of the Broncos, it was almost unfair.
"Ooh, that was ridiculous," said defensive tackle Trevor Pryce. "When that happens, it's like sharks to blood. You want to be the first to get there. A sack in this league is spelled with two dollar signs."
The injuries and lack of depth on both sides of the ball left Palmer with few options to turn things around. He has journeymen starting on his offensive line and marginal young players in his secondary, but he has no choice and he says neither does his team.
"We have to go in and play and we have to go through this situation," he said. "Some teams don't understand what they're going through. Hopefully, I've communicated that to our team and they know what we're trying to get through. Hopefully, they see the film and they know I'm not lying when I say we're close."
Up next: at Pittsburgh, 3-3
Titans quarterback Steve McNair threw two first-half touchdown passes on Monday night against Jacksonville, and both were circus-like catches. Amazingly, the Jaguars seemed to know what was coming, but still couldn't stop the Titans.
"They called the play out," tight end Frank Wycheck said after the game. "They knew what we were about to run."
Defensive end Renaldo Wynn ran to the flat in the Jaguars' zone-blitz scheme and knocked the ball out of Wycheck's hands. "I don't think you can play it any better than that," Wynn said of the ball that ended up on Wycheck's chest as he lay in the end zone. "He kept his focus. He's not your regular tight end. A regular tight end wouldn't have caught it."
Receiver Derrick Mason made a similar catch in the second quarter to give the Titans a 14-3 advantage. "The guy bit and Steve threw an excellent ball," Mason said. "(Jason) Craft tipped it and kind of kept it in the air for me. I was just able to stay with it."
The Titans were so conscious of prying eyes in the days before the Jaguars game that the defensive coaches not only changed their signals but had a decoy signal on the sidelines to throw the visitors off. Head coach Jeff Fisher even moved Saturday's practice indoors in case scouts were watching from nearby buildings.
The win was the 19th in the last 21 games against the AFC Central for Tennessee, which moves ahead of Baltimore by a half game in the divisional standings. The battle for first place is next Sunday in Baltimore.
Up next: at Baltimore, 5-2.
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