There are dueling realities with the Baltimore Ravens. They have scored 34 fewer points than they have allowed after 14 games. The offense is 29th in the NFL and the defense is 21st. Yet they have a realistic chance of playing for the AFC North Division title in the last game of the season.
Two teams stand in the way. The first is the Cleveland Browns today at Ravens Stadium. If the Ravens (7-7) lose, they have no chance at the playoffs. If they win and the first-place Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1) lose at Tampa Bay (11-3) on Monday night, the Ravens-Steelers game Dec. 29 in Pittsburgh would be for the division title.
A couple of wild-card scenarios are possible for the Ravens, but they must win their last two games and some other teams must lose. Baltimore is a slight favorite today, in part because it has won four of its last six games and has a running game that was exceptional during a victory over the Browns (7-7) in Cleveland in the fourth game of the season.
No one expected the plucky Ravens to win more than a handful of games, let alone to be in playoff contention on the next-to-last weekend of the season with such an inexperienced team. That assessment was bolstered when all-pro inside linebacker Ray Lewis suffered what became a season-ending shoulder injury late in the third quarter of the earlier game against the Browns. They are 5-4 without Lewis.
"This team has developed quicker than I thought it would," owner Art Modell said. "It's been a source of great pride and pleasure."
Added outside linebacker Cornell Brown: "We're shaking up the whole league."
This is the fourth chance the Ravens have to break above .500. They failed to crack it the other three times, against the Steelers and New Orleans Saints at home and the Indianapolis Colts on the road. A key will be the effectiveness of their running game with tailback Jamal Lewis.
In a 26-21 victory in Cleveland on Oct. 6, Lewis gained 186 yards on 26 carries and had his longest run of the season (75 yards). Lewis missed all of last season with a knee injury. Two years ago, as a rookie on a team that eventually won Super Bowl XXXV, he gained 86 yards in 13 carries in one game against the Browns and 170 yards on 30 carries in the other.
"We'll try to wear 'em down, like we've done in the past," Lewis said. "The offensive line has really dominated, and that's showed up in the third and fourth quarters. We can do that with any team, but we seem to do it more against this team."
Lewis has a few friends on the Cleveland defense, including linebacker Dwayne Rudd, tackle Gerard Warren and safety Robert Griffith, and said:
"They don't want me to get that 100 yards. They'll turn their games up a notch."
Cleveland's offense still features quarterback Tim Couch and several very capable wide receivers. But the major difference between this game and the last may hinge on rookie running back William Green, chosen with the 16th pick in the first round of the NFL draft. Green gained just two yards on four carries in the first game against the Ravens.
Green has been much more effective of late, gaining more than 100 yards in two of the past four games.
"We tried to move up to get him," Ravens Coach Brian Billick said of a draft-day strategy that ended with the team choosing safety Ed Reed with the 24th pick in the first round. "The running game has helped Couch.
"They're gifted across the board."
The Browns have played some of the most unusual games of the season.
They lost the opener, 40-39, to the Kansas City Chiefs on a last-second field goal after Rudd flung his helmet in celebration for an apparent game-ending effort. The 15-yard penalty, added on to a 28-yard run with a desperate completion behind the line to tackle John Tait, gave Morten Andersen a chip shot, from 30 yards, for the winning points.
But the Browns also won in overtime at the Tennessee Titans in game three and beat the Jacksonville Jaguars two weeks ago, 21-20, on a 50-yard pass to Quincy Morgan on the final play of the game. They gave up 28 points in the second half last week at home to the Colts and suffered a 28-23 loss.
"Our youth was very evident in the last game," Billick said, referring to the Browns nearly winning after falling behind by 23-0 late in the third quarter. "We're missing some key pieces because of injuries and they're running better. It's pretty clear what we have to do."