Kyle Boller is no longer a rookie quarterback. Yes, the Baltimore Ravens' signal-caller is almost halfway through his second season in the NFL. But Boller finally has a full season's worth of starts under his belt. He will make his 17th career start on Sunday night against the Cleveland Browns, "the first [game] of my second season, I guess you could say," according to Boller.
"The expectations are higher, not that there's a huge difference between last game and this game," Coach Brian Billick said. "The concept that he's had a full season behind him now, those lessons that you learn -- we're counting on in the second half of the season for those lessons to kick in and be the difference."
The Ravens need to see continued improvement from Boller, who started nine games last year before being sidelined because of a quadriceps injury, if they want to continue to contend for a playoff berth. Baltimore (4-3) is two games behind Pittsburgh (6-1) and one game ahead of Cleveland (3-4) in the AFC North, and the Ravens have a tough remaining schedule (their final nine opponents have a combined record of 36-28).
"We can't afford to lose this game, no matter how you look at it," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "For us, this is like our playoff run right now. We have to go out this week and win, as well as finish out the season with as many wins as possible."
Boller played perhaps his best game as a pro in last week's 15-10 loss at Philadelphia -- his 16th career start -- and he did so in a hostile, playoff-type atmosphere. He completed a career-high 63 percent of his passes (24 for 38), and finished with his second-highest yardage total (223 yards). He was especially good in the second half, throwing for 150 yards, including a 52-yard pass to Clarence Moore that helped set up his seven-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dan Wilcox.
But Boller knows that just because he played well against Philadelphia doesn't mean that the Ravens will open up their passing game. The trick for Boller is to be as efficient as possible with his limited opportunities.
"Basically I want to try to complete every ball," Boller said. "If I can go out there and be 16 of 16, I'm going to be it. Then if I am 16 of 16, we're going to be out on the field longer, so maybe we'll get to throw the ball more. It's all about the wins. Whatever it takes to win, I'm all for it."
Boller was shaky in Baltimore's 20-3 loss to Cleveland in the season opener. He was 22 of 38 for 191 yards, but he was responsible for three turnovers on three consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter -- a fumble sandwiched by two interceptions.
The Ravens' offense struggled in that game; the Browns bottled up running back Jamal Lewis, holding him to only 57 yards on 20 carries (an average of 2.9 yards per carry). The Browns also did a good job of pressuring Boller; defensive end Kenard Lang had three sacks while going up against left tackle Ethan Brooks (who was subbing for injured all-pro Jonathan Ogden). Brooks, who played well against the Eagles, will again be filling in for Ogden on Sunday.
Because of the injury last season, Boller never got to face the same team twice in a season. Now he gets that chance.
"It's huge, because you get the general concepts of what they like to do," Boller said. "Obviously they're not going to do the exact same stuff they did to us last game. But I know certain players, I know who I'm going to be going against, so there's the comfort factor. . . . It's kind of neat to go out there and play them again."
Ravens Notes: Tight end Todd Heap (ankle) and Ogden (hamstring) have been downgraded from questionable to doubtful, and neither player practiced this week. Linebacker Ray Lewis (knee) is listed as probable; he was held out of portions of practice throughout the week, but Billick said that Lewis is fine . . .
Heap's recovery has taken longer than expected; when he sprained his ankle against Pittsburgh on Sept. 19, the Ravens figured that he would be sidelined for two to four weeks. Heap has already missed five games. . . .
The Ravens will wear an all-black uniform for the first time on Sunday night. The all-black look was Ray Lewis's idea. . . . Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps will be introduced on the field prior to the game.