The Ravens' 44-7 over the Browns moved them to within a game of the first-place Titans in the race for the AFC Central Division title.
Baltimore always had one side of the equation for winning championships, a dominant defense, but has now added a powerful running attack, which gives them a real shot in January. Rookie running back Jamal Lewis followed his 185-yard performance against Dallas with a 170-yard game against the Browns. He's run for 355 yards the last two weeks and has now gained 1,095 to set the franchise single-season record.
"He can beat you with speed, he can run over you," said quarterback Trent Dilfer. "He's developing a presence in the passing game. He's a very good blocker. When he becomes as good a blocker and receiver as he is a runner, he's going to be the best in the league."
Lewis has become such a consistent threat that coach Brian Billick has made Lewis the Ravens' chief weapon. The Ravens have run the ball 95 times the last two weeks and only thrown it 50.
Dilfer was strong for the fourth consecutive game, guiding an offense that went without a touchdown during the entire month of October to 461 yards against Cleveland and touchdown passes of 46 and two yards. The Ravens' 44-points was the most in five seasons in Baltimore.
The Raven's defense is now first overall, first against the run and first against the pass after holding the Browns to only 112 total yards on Sunday. The game didn't start out well for a defense looking for it's record-tying fifth shutout of the season. Cleveland opened in a no-huddle offense and marched 86 yards in only four plays to take an early 7-0 lead. Included in that drive was a 67-yard pass from Doug Pederson to receiver Kevin Johnson, the longest play against the Baltimore defense this season.
But things turned south after that drive for the Browns, who gained only three yards during the remainder of the first half and went without a first down on 10 of their remaining 13 offensive possessions. The Browns couldn't run; they had just four rushing attempts that went for more than two yards. The Browns couldn't protect their quarterback, who was sacked six times and knocked down six other times, and the Browns couldn't move the ball; they managed only 26 yards on 44 plays after their first drive of the game.
"If it was just execution, then we would have been scared," said middle linebacker Ray Lewis of the defense's early stumble. "But we just missed tackles. It was the first first-drive touchdown the Ravens had allowed all season.
While Cleveland's touchdown threw the Ravens for a loop in trying to tie the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers' record for shut-outs, it didn't knock them off track in their pursuit of the 1986 Chicago Bears' record for fewest points allowed in a season. That Bears team allowed only 187 points. The Ravens have given up only 135 and, at their current pace of allowing only 11 points per game, would break the record with 168.
Up next: Bye
Kordell Stewart brought back images of the man who led the Steelers to the 1997 AFC championship game with a retro performance on Sunday. Stewart threw 21 touchdown passes that season and ran for 11 others in his first year as a starter. Two-and-a-half miserable seasons later, he brought back the memories with three touchdown throws and a touchdown run in a 48-28 win in Cincinnati.
"He made some very good decisions, pulled the ball down at times. I don't think there's any question it was Kordell's best game of the season," coach Bill Cowher said.
Stewart looked as composed as he did in '97, hitting seven different receivers and throwing a 34-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward, an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Bruener and a 45-yard scoring strike to Bobby Shaw.
"He looked like the Kordell of old," said Cincinnati defensive end Michael Bankston. "Sitting back, hitting his receivers, or, if all else fails, taking off through a seam and running for big yardage. He has a lot of talent."
Jerome Bettis has never left the Steelers offense, so there was no retro performance from the "bus." Bettis just keeps on running, and on Sunday he ran for 93 yards and reached the 1,000-yard plateau for the fifth consecutive season since joining the Steelers back in 1996.
But the good old days are far from back in Pittsburgh, where their once stout run-defense continues to crumble. One week after allowing Jacksonville's Fred Taylor to run for 234 yards and three touchdowns, the Steelers gave up 209 to Cincinnati.
"Our run-defense is one thing we have to get rectified," said a grim-faced Cowher.
Bengals running back Corey Dillon ran for 128 yards and a 20-yard touchdown, and his backup, Brandon Bennett, added 55 yards and a 37-yard touchdown run.
"They are a fast-flowing defense and we saw that they tend to overpursue," explained Dillon. "I just had to be patient and find a lane to run. I saw some opportunities to cut it back and cut it up the field."
Despite their troubles against the run, the Steelers remain a defense that takes advantage of opportunities. In the third quarter, linebacker Jason Gildon sacked Bengals quarterback Akili Smith and forced a fumble, which was recovered at the Cincinnati 7-yard line. One play later Bettis made it 38-21 with a short touchdown run.
On the Bengals' next possession, center Rich Braham sent a shotgun snap over the head of Smith. Gildon was on it in a second and raced 22 yards untouched to the end zone to put the game away.
The Steelers are still in the playoffs chase with a 6-6 record, but must face the 10-2 Raiders, 8-4 Giants and 7-5 Redskins in the next three weeks.
Up next: Oakland, 10-2
The Titans' 16-13 loss in Jacksonville was their second loss in the last three games, but they could very easily be in the midst of a losing streak somewhere closer to four games if Cleveland had been able to convert on seven Tennessee turnovers two Sundays ago, and if the Steelers had been able to stop Tennessee on fourth-and-eight in the final minutes of their game a month ago.
"It's not time to panic," said cornerback Samari Rolle, "but we need to find our edge again and find it quickly."
The Titans now find themselves a game behind the Oakland Raiders for homefield advantage in the playoffs, and only a game ahead of the Baltimore Ravens.
"They're going to lose one," said left tackle Brad Hopkins of Oakland. "They will. You know why? Because it's the NFL and 14-2 is very hard to come by."
Rolle's two interceptions on Sunday give him six in the last five games against the Jaguars, seven for the season and 10 in his last 14 regular season games. He's playing at the level that earned Miami's Sam Madison a Pro Bowl berth last year and a $54 million contract last spring.
"He's rolling, rolling, rolling," said safety Blaine Bishop. "Those were phenomenal plays. He's the best athlete in the secondary and now he's showing it."
Al Del Greco was disconsolate in the locker room following a missed 28-yard field goal attempt that would have given Tennessee a lead with about three minutes to play.
"I'm tired of apologizing, but I feel like I should do that," he said. "There are a lot of guys who played a hell of a football game and there are a lot of people back in Tennessee who have been good to me and stood by me and I let them down again."
Up next: at Philadelphia, 9-4
"We ran into a buzzsaw," said coach Chris Palmer quietly after the Browns were blown out by the Ravens 44-7.
The Ravens have now won all four meetings against the team that plays in their former city by a combined score of 114-26. But this one was more humiliating than all the other losses combined, at least the Browns think so.
With the Ravens leading 31-7 at the end of the first half, Baltimore coach Brian Billick used his timeouts instead of allowing the clock to run to the break.
"They tried to rub our noses in the ground," said linebacker Walli Rainer. "We'll remember that. I really think they tried to embarrass us."
Billick and the Ravens scoffed at that assertion. "We had 51 running plays and when you do that you're not running up the score," said quarterback Trent Dilfer diplomatically.
Baltimore tight end Shannon Sharpe put the Browns and their troubles in perspective. "I get so sick of people saying that. We can't start kneeling down midway through the second quarter," he said of the Browns complaints. "We do you a favor. When we beat you bad, we let you know you need to go get some new players or a new coaching staff. It's your job to keep us from getting points on the board, or sacks. So, no, he wasn't running up the score. But he should have."
Palmer, whose team complained almost as vigorously when the Ravens beat them 41-9 in 1999, didn't have much to say. "I learned a long time ago, I'll coach my team and he'll coach his team," he said.
The Browns opened in the no-huddle and went 86 yards for an opening-drive touchdown. Pederson's 67-yard pass to Kevin Johnson gave Cleveland hope that they could open things up on the Ravens' top-ranked defense, but that was the extent of their success in Baltimore. On their next 44 offensive plays, the Browns gained only 26 yards.
"I just felt bad because, as an offense, we didn't do anything to help the defense," said Pederson.
The Browns' injury situation, already dire, grew even more so in Baltimore. Starting defensive tackle Orpheus Roye broke the thumb on his left hand while backup tackle Mike Thompson and backup linebacker Lenoy Jones suffered sprained knees.
"I don't think we quit," said Palmer. I think we got beat up."
If the Ravens didn't do it, the remainder of their schedule will finish the task. They're in Jacksonville on Sunday before closing out their schedule at home against Philadelphia and Tennessee.
Up next: at Jacksonville, 5-7
The Bengals' 48-28 loss to Pittsburgh was the tenth loss of the season and it marked the seventh time in the last 10 seasons in which the Bengals have suffered losses in double digits.
On Sunday, with an offense that was matching Pittsburgh point for point until the third quarter, they were done in by their defense, which had played solid all season long.
"We didn't execute on defense," said coach Dick LeBeau. "It's pretty alarming because we haven't had any of those problems this season. That was one of our poorer games on defense in the last several years."
Kordell Stewart threw three touchdown passes and ran for another while running back Jerome Bettis ran through the Bengals for 93 yards and a touchdown.
The Bengals' 28 points represent their best showing of the season, especially if you consider that in their last three games they had a combined total of only 26-points. Corey Dillon ran for 128 yards, including a 20-yard score, as the Bengals put up 209 rushing yards on a beleaguered Pittsburgh defense.
"Our defense has been carrying us all year," said offensive tackle Willie Anderson. "I just told the offense, 'It's our time to help these guys out, to carry these guys.' "
Quarterback Akili Smith, who was benched in New England, started his tenth game of the season and showed signs of life. Smith completed 10 of 20 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown for a passing attack that had less than 100 yards in five of their last 10 games.
Smith has taken a posture of not talking to reporters after the game, so center Rich Braham offered his opinion on the second-year signal-caller.
"He's making audibles. He knew what fronts they were in. He did a good job with that," Braham observed. "Just being on the field with him through the first three quarters when we were still in the game, he knew what he was doing. It's a big improvement. It showed in his performance."
But Smith still made the same mistakes that have cost his team dearly this season. Smith fumbled the ball when he was sacked by Pittsburgh's Jason Gildon in the third quarter to set up a touchdown, and couldn't snare an errant snap on the next drive, which gave the Steelers another score. Smith now has 14 fumbles this season and is only seven shy of the NFL record with four games to play.
Up next: Arizona, 3-9