It appears the Baltimore Ravens defense is the heir-apparent to the 1985 Chicago Bears. No defense had posted back-to-back shutouts in the NFL since the Bears did it during their 18-1 Super Bowl season. The Ravens broke the 15-year drought by pitching their second consecutive shutout and their third of the 2000 season.
"We threw that out to our guys as a challenge," said coach Brian Billick, "and that is no disrespect to the Browns. It didn't matter who we were coming in against."
It certainly doesn't seem like it matters, even if it was just the Bengals and Browns. The Ravens haven't allowed a touchdown in 133 minutes and have outscored their last two opponents 49-0.
"Every NFL team has a salary cap," explained defensive end Rob Burnett. "We're shutting them out, the best of the best every week. We play the best available athletes money can buy."
It is that defense which has spurred the Ravens to seven consecutive wins against teams from the AFC Central. The last division team to amass that kind of streak was the 1998 Titans, who are still beating Central opponents regularly.
A week after scoring four touchdowns in a 37-0 win over Cincinnati, all Billick's offense could muster was four field goals. There is some solace for the Baltimore coach in the fact that his running game controlled the tempo. Rookie running back Jamal Lewis ran for 86 yards and his backup, Priest Holmes had 82. The Ravens opened the third quarter with a clock-eating drive of 10 minutes, and they did it without either of their starting offensive tackles. Both Jonathan Ogden and Harry Swayne are listed as questionable for Sunday night's game in Jacksonville.
The Ravens are 4-1 and in sole possession of first place in the AFC Central. Their win in Cleveland validated their status as a Central power, as they ran the ball and played suffocating defense.
*Up next: at Jacksonville, 2-3 *
The Titans would argue they are as beat up a team as any in the NFL, and yet they find themselves just a half game out of first in the division. Tennessee is starting to play its brand of football and they're doing it without some of their key players and with others in various states of rehabilitation.
Starting quarterback Steve McNair returned to the starting lineup for the first time since week two. He put on a show for the Giants on Sunday, passing for 293 yards and three touchdowns, his best outing since throwing for 291 yards and five scores against Jacksonville last December.
It didn't matter that he was playing without wide receiver Kevin Dyson or tight end Michael Roan, or that starting tight end Frank Wycheck was still woozy from a concussion suffered the previous week. McNair stood at the helm and showed a mastery of new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's offense by checking off at the line of scrimmage and changing plays.
"He had a lot of fun this week," said coach Jeff Fisher of his starter. "He prepared, studied hard and he knew what he was doing. He came out and relaxed and expected to make plays and he did."
McNair led the Titans on four scoring drives of longer than 80 yards and converted 14 of 20 third-down situations. He had a good deal of help. Running back Eddie George posted his first big game of the season with 125 yards and a touchdown and Wycheck managed five catches and a pair of scores. Rookie tight end Erron Kinney caught five passes and, for the first time, filled the role that was left vacant by the injury to Roan and by the departure of Jackie Harris in free agency.
WR/KR Derrick Mason may have made the biggest contribution to the Titans win. He caught six passes for 103 yards and a touchdown, and four of those grabs were on third down and were good for a first down.
"Derrick Mason is our MVP right now," George said. "He puts the team in great field position on punt returns and he makes big plays on third down."
Tennessee's defense enjoyed the show as much as the fans. They might as well have paid for a ticket for as long as they were on the field, just a hair over 17 minutes. They did their part, holding the Giants' top-ranked rushing game to only 24 yards, and intercepting Kerry Collins three times.
"Man, they (the offense) killed a lot of time," said safety Blaine Bishop. "I feel like I didn't really play a whole game. I felt like I was at practice."
*Up next: at Cincinnati, 0-4 *
The story may seem the same to Bengals fans who watched their team lose their fourth in a row to Miami on Sunday, but the Bengals were vastly improved under new head coach Dick LeBeau.
LeBeau watched his team score on their first three possessions against Miami. This from a Bengals offense that had put points on the board in just one of their first 34 offensive drives this season.
Running back Corey Dillon led the way with 110 yards on 22 carries. Dillon managed only 82 yards in Cincinnati's first three games, and his ability to move the chains took an immense amount of heat off quarterback Akili Smith in Miami. The results show in Smith's 20 of 38 for 178 yards and a touchdown.
"He played a smart football game," LeBeau said of Smith. When a play was there, he took it. When it wasn't, he ran intelligently. He didn't take unnecessary risks. He looks as if he has matured."
Even rookie kicker Neil Rackers turned things around, hitting all three field goal attempts after missing all three previous attempts.
The same old story is that the Bengals couldn't protect their lead. With less than 20 seconds to play in the first half and leading 13-3, Smith was sacked by the Dolphins' Jason Taylor, who forced the ball free then scooped it up for a 29-yard touchdown. It was the beginning of the end for Cincinnati.
"In hindsight, I wish I hadn't thrown the ball," offered LeBeau.
The Dolphins ran off 31 unanswered points, controlling the ball for more than 10 minutes in the third quarter and dominating the second half.
"We were very focused in the first half," said the coach. "These are the things we're trying to get established around here. I think we all could see this team can do some things. We have some talented players here. The fact of winning means sustaining 60 minutes and we did not do that."
*Up next: Tennessee, 3-1 *
The Ravens defense has Cleveland fullback Marc Edwards to thank for their third shutout of the season. Edwards fumbled the ball twice inside the Raven's 10-yard line late in the first half with the Browns trailing 9-0. The second fumble was recovered by Rod Woodson in the end zone, halting the only legitimate scoring threat offered by the home team all afternoon.
"It's my responsibility and my responsibility only," a despondent Edwards said. "I saw the end zone and thought I was going to score. It doesn't matter if it was knocked out or pulled out or what happened. It's my responsibility."
There's worse news from the Browns running game, as halfback Errict Rhett suffered a mid-foot sprain that coach Chris Palmer said would keep him out for an indefinite period of time. The loss of Rhett would bring to three the number of offensive starters lost in the first five games and it would leave them with two fullbacks and a rookie free agent in the backfield.
There are other concerns on offense, where last year's top receiver, Kevin Johnson, is this season's non-factor, and the line remains unable to create holes for the running game and plug them for the pass. The one issue that doesn't appear to be as critical as first thought is the extent of Tim Couch's hyperextended knee. Couch was leveled by Baltimore tackle Sam Adams and left the game. Initially it was feared his season lost, but Couch returned to the game.
"I thought the season was over for me," Couch said. "He hit me high; it wasn't a cheap shot or anything. As we were going down, my leg kind of got caught underneath." Couch said he didn't expect to miss any time.
The lack of any production from the offense overshadowed a defensive showing that kept the Ravens out of the end zone. Baltimore was left with four field goals for their 12-0 win. Cleveland accomplished that defensive fete without two of their five linebackers, which says something when you consider how much the Ravens utilize two-tight end sets.
*Up next: at Arizona, 1-3
Kordell Stewart didn't light the world on fire in his return to the starting quarterback job in Jacksonville on Sunday, but he did manage to get the job done and considering the questions about his personal and professional life since 1998, it was enough to instill confidence in the gifted signal-caller.
"There's been a lot of things going on, and I've had to stay very professional about it," was all he would say when asked about it. "When you have the opportunity, you just want to seize the moment. My opportunity came and we all, as a team, jelled together. We've all been through a lot, not just me."
The Steelers said that holding the Jaguars to a field goal after having a punt blocked was a moral victory. Jacksonville was unable to get into the end zone after recovering the ball at the Pittsburgh four-yard line and settled for a field goal instead.
"That set the tempo for the game," safety Lee Flowers said. "We always said we needed to start fast, and that was the perfect situation. We stepped up and held them to a field goal."
*Up next: at New York Jets, 4-0 * *