The Baltimore Ravens have been wary of using the word "playoffs" around Baltimore this fall. They know they're a team capable of making the playoffs, but don't want to get ahead of themselves, which seems like a sound strategy for a team that has never gone to the postseason. They are, however, starting to use the word "shutout," which is a right they've earned through 11 games.
Baltimore's 27-0 shutout of Dallas on Sunday was their fourth of the season, the most since the Pittsburgh Steelers posted five in 1976 and more than the vaunted Bears defense of 1985. The Ravens' top-ranked defense is so thoroughly dominating that it hasn't allowed a running back to cross the 100-yard mark in nearly two years and it leads the league in fewest points allowed, fewest total yards allowed and fewest rushing yards allowed.
"For us to win in the dominating fashion we did says something about us," coach Brian Billick said of the win over the Cowboys. "This is a special group and they have earned the right to talk."
Baltimore held the Cowboys to only 192 total yards and intercepted Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman three times to up their league-leading turnover margin to plus-14.
There are a few opportunities left on the Ravens schedule for them to post shutouts. They host a Cleveland team on Sunday that managed only five first downs and 125 total yards in Tennessee. They'll also face San Diego in Baltimore and travel to Arizona.
"Now it's in reach," said linebacker Ray Lewis of the Steelers' NFL record. "Now we can go for it. We can taste it, smell it. So why not go for it?"
Running back Jamal Lewis was every bit as dominant a runner as Lewis was a tackler on Sunday. The rookie from Tennessee broke off runs of eight, 10 and seven yards on the opening drive of the game and finished with 187 of the Ravens' franchise-record 250. Lewis was so powerful that he sent Dallas safety Darren Woodson to the training room after he tried to tackle him around the thighs. Woodson returned with a cast on his arm in the third quarter.
Lewis the runner says he plays the game in much the same fashion as Lewis the linebacker. "He's just like me," said Ray Lewis. "We're identical; it's almost scary. When my uncle met him, he said his behavior was just like mine. We're alike in a lot of ways; hungry, energetic, fiery and we like to play football."
Trent Dilfer continued his renaissance with a 40-yard touchdown pass to Qadry Ismail in the first quarter and a 56-yard scoring strike to tight end Shannon Sharpe in the second. The Tampa castoff has thrown seven touchdowns during the Ravens' three-game winning streak and has Baltimore headed in the right direction.
Up next: Cleveland, 3-9
The Titans left Adelphia Coliseum on Sunday knowing they should have lost the game after turning the ball over seven times against Cleveland. Instead, they became the first team since the 1983 Pittsburgh Steelers to win a game with as many giveaways.
"If we had played anybody else, who knows what the outcome would have been," said wide receiver Derrick Mason of Tennessee's good fortune to have played a Browns team in only its second season.
Cleveland safety Percy Ellsworth returned one of quarterback Steve McNair's three interceptions for a touchdown and the Browns converted one of his two fumbles into a field goal. Other than that, they gained only 53 yards and two first downs after taking the ball away from the Titans.
"Nobody panicked and nobody was really frustrated," explained head coach Jeff Fisher. "You can't really put your finger on it. It's a play here and a play there. We moved the ball very well in the first half, but we kept turning it over. The second half, we settled in and made some plays."
Seven of Tennessee's first nine drives ended with turnovers, including four drives that were inside the Browns' 31-yard line when the turnovers occurred.
"That's a poor performance overall by myself," said McNair. "You can't expect to win a game with five turnovers from your quarterback. I take the blame, it's my fault."
What ultimately gets lost in the statistics is that it was McNair who pulled his team out of the fire. With Tennessee trailing 7-0 in the third quarter, the Titans offense faced third-and-eight at the Cleveland 27-yard line. McNair eluded the rush and scrambled 23 yards to set up Eddie George's first touchdown run.
Later in the third quarter, McNair and the offense faced fourth-and-four in Cleveland territory and McNair once again scrambled 23 yards to set up the second of George's three touchdown runs.
"Steve seems to have a knack for finding the time and place to pull it down and make the big run," said 18-year veteran guard Bruce Matthews. "Whether things are going well or not, it's hard to tell any discernible difference in the way Steve acts. That's one of his strengths."
Meanwhile, George gutted his way through another game played in pain. George has been beset by injury since mid-October. Sunday it was sore ribs, but it wasn't enough to slow him down as he finished with 36 carries for 134 yards and all three Tennessee touchdowns.
The Titans defense held Cleveland to just five first downs, the fewest allowed by Bud Adams' franchise since 1970, the year they joined the NFL. Other than the interception returned for a touchdown and the fumble that became a field goal, the Tennessee defense stoned the Browns, who didn't cross the Titans 40-yard line and had just 125 yards of offense.
"We persevered," said safety Blaine Bishop. "Sometimes turnovers happen. Of course, usually not seven in one game. This is a team sport and the defense had to rise to the occasion."
Up next: at Jacksonville, 4-7
What would a Sunday afternoon be for the Cleveland Browns if they didn't have to battle the loss of an offensive starter? "That's a good question," said coach Chris Palmer. "I don't know the answer to that one."
Already down two quarterbacks, two offensive linemen, a running back and a wide receiver, the Browns took another hit Sunday in Tennessee when center Dave Wohlabaugh left the game with a badly-sprained ankle. The situation grew more dire for Cleveland in the second half when guard Everett Lindsey was tossed from the game for unsportsmanlike conduct.
It's no wonder the Browns were unable to take advantage of the seven gifts from the Titans on Sunday in Nashville. With rookies manning the offensive front, Cleveland lost the battle at the line of scrimmage. They managed only five first downs and rolled up a paltry 125 yards of offense against Tennessee.
"I'm not questioning the effort of the offense," said Palmer. "Those guys played hard, too. It's not their fault that they're young, and it's not their fault they don't have all the sticks they need to swing right now."
The Browns left Nashville believing their defense is ready to go and that if they had any help from the offense they could have won the game. Two weeks ago against the Giants, Percy Ellsworth picked up the Browns' first fumble recovery of the season. Sunday, in Tennessee, they grabbed four and added three interceptions.
"I don't think anyone gave us a chance," said Palmer of his defense, "but our guys rose up and played their hearts out."
The fact that the offense is a shell of what it started out as in training camp is no consolation to receiver Kevin Johnson. "Guys gave everything they had," he said of an offense without its franchise quarterback, three starting offensive linemen, starting running back and wide receiver. "We're trying. We're doing everything possible. I think this team has a lot of heart, a lot of character. Trust me, we are going to win. Maybe not this year, but when we get all our horses back, it'll be a different game."
The second leg of the Browns' grueling three-game road swing sends them to Baltimore to face the best defense in football without any more help than they had in Tennessee against the league's third-best unit.
Up next: at Baltimore, 8-4
Quarterback Scott Mitchell personifies the Cincinnati Bengals of the last 10 years. The veteran lefthander made his first start for Dick LeBeau's football team on Sunday in New England and gave the Bengals their best outing by a quarterback in 13 games, dating back to last December. Mitchell led the league's worst passing offense by completing 20-38 for 236 yards and his 13-yard touchdown pass to rookie Peter Warrick was the team's first scoring pass in 28 quarters of football. He put together four drives of longer than 40 yards and helped Cincinnati to a season-high 25 first downs.
But in the locker room after the game, he was wearing a knee brace and told reporters that he had heard a pop, which left his status in doubt for a repeat performance next Sunday against Pittsburgh. "I need to find out where my knee is," said Mitchell following the 16-13 loss to the Patriots. "I'd really like to be in there next week. For me, this is really like the start of the season. It's a good start, but I think we could be so much better in a week's time."
Just when you start to think the Bengals are ready to take a giant step forward, something is always around the corner to set them back. The possible loss of Mitchell would hurt Warrick more than anyone. LeBeau moved the veteran into the starting lineup last week to push along the rookie receiver's development, which had been stunted by the struggles of franchise quarterback Akili Smith.
Warrick's seven catches for 79 yards and the touchdown represented the best day of his young career. Those seven grabs included receptions of 16, 10, 18, 13 and 22 yards, which clearly shows his big-play ability.
"He's a great threat," said Mitchell. "He has the ability to make a super play at the right time. We're trying to get him the ball as many times as possible."
The Bengals running game compiled 137 yards, but Corey Dillon was held in check for most of the game, needing 28 carries to gain 79 yards. His struggles were tied directly to an offensive line without its top two left tackles and which lost starting left guard Matt O'Dwyer to a broken ankle on Sunday.
Left tackle Rod Jones, who started for John Jackson, left the game on a stretcher with a heart monitor attached after complaining of chest pain and breathing difficulty in the Cincinnati huddle. He spent the night at a Boston Hospital and was expected to be fine, according to a Bengals spokesman.
The Bengals defense enjoyed a day in which they didn't have to spend most of the game on the field. Mitchell's success in generating first downs gave them a chance to catch their breath for the first time all season.
"Scott played well," said linebacker Takeo Spikes. "He did a lot of good things out there on the field. He played well and helped us stay fresh."
Cincinnati held New England to just 39 rushing yards, their best showing of the season, but did let receivers Terry Glenn and Troy Brown combine to catch 19 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown.
Up next: Pittsburgh, 5-6
The Steelers insist they aren't looking over their shoulders. The Pittsburgh team that climbed from 0-3 with a five-game winning streak, has now lost their last three to fall to 5-6. It's a familiar situation for the Steelers, who started each of the last two seasons with five wins in their first eight games, only to finish 7-9 and 6-10 and miss the playoffs.
There wasn't much to say in the Pittsburgh locker room after Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor dismantled what had been one of the best run-defenses in football.
"It was a horrid display of run-defense," was all coach Bill Cowher could manage.
"I don't have no comment," said linebacker Earl Holmes, the Steelers leading tackler.
There was more to say on the offensive side of things, where one catch might have turned the game around. Pittsburgh trailed 34-24 with less than six minutes to play when quarterback Kordell Stewart spotted wide receiver Hines Ward all alone at the Jaguars five-yard line, but Ward was off balance and dropped the ball as his body hit the ground.
"I wish I could get that ball back," he lamented. "At least it would have given us an opportunity."
Ward wasn't the only one to blame on offense in which five turnovers resulted in four scores by the visiting Jaguars.
There are just two games remaining at historic Three Rivers Stadium, one of the shrines to professional football. Here's guessing the current Steelers won't be sorry to see it go. Since beating the Jaguars 30-15 in November of 1998, they're just 4-12 when they play at home.
Up next: at Cincinnati, 2-9