AFC North: Ravens show both resiliency and resourcefulness

3:50 PM, Sep 28, 2010   |    comments
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(Sports Network) - Defense had been carrying the Baltimore Ravens over the first two weeks of this NFL season. On Sunday, it was the offense's turn to show the way.

Baltimore survived an uncharacteristic off day from its stingy stop unit in its Week 3 clash with division-rival Cleveland, instead relying on a vastly- improved performance on the other side of the ball to earn a hard-fought 24-17 victory in its 2010 home opener.

A defense that didn't surrender a touchdown in either of the opening two games had its difficulties dealing with the physical Browns, who rode burly running back Peyton Hillis to a team total of 173 rushing yards and claimed a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter with a six-play, 81-yard drive capped by a short scoring pass from fill-in quarterback Seneca Wallace. However, a bounce- back outing from Joe Flacco and a dazzling home debut from offseason pickup Anquan Boldin enabled the Ravens to overcome those obstacles and deliver a much-needed win over their determined opponent.

After enduring one of the worst games of his three-year pro career in last week's 15-10 loss at fellow AFC North member Cincinnati, Flacco displayed both a short memory and an accurate arm against the Browns. The unflappable 25- year-old hit on 22-of-31 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns, the last being a go-ahead 27-yard bullet to Boldin with 9:13 left to play.

Flacco threw four interceptions and completed only 17-of-39 throws in the Week 2 setback to the Bengals, but his presence and decision-making were both noticeably better this time around.

"He's the kind of guy you want playing quarterback for you," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. "I don't think there's a guy in the building that doubted that for one second. Not Joe, not [offensive coordinator] Cam [Cameron], not one of our players, not me."

Flacco was certainly helped out by a dominant showing from Boldin, acquired in a trade with Arizona back in March to provide a bona fide No. 1 target to a revamped receiving corps. The three-time Pro Bowl selection burned the Browns for 142 yards on eight catches and was on the other end of all three of his new triggerman's touchdown strikes.

Baltimore compiled 365 total yards in addition to its 24-point outburst, which exceeded the team's combined scoring sum over the previous two weeks. More importantly, the Ravens did not turn the ball over once after committing seven giveaways in season-opening tilts with the Bengals and New York Jets.

"I think this week everybody had a different mentality going into the game," said Boldin. "Everybody took it personal, especially this offense with the performance that we had last week. As an offense, we wanted to put our best foot forward."

It didn't all go to plan for the offense, however. Standout running back Ray Rice sat out the final two drives after sustaining a deep bruise to one of his knees, an injury that could keep him out for this Sunday's pivotal showdown with the unbeaten and AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

STEELERS: Pittsburgh again won't have top quarterback Ben Roethlisberger available for this weekend's tussle with the Ravens, but it so far hasn't mattered who's taken snaps under center when the Steelers have taken the field.

The team dusted off seldom-used veteran Charlie Batch for Sunday's road matchup with surprising Tampa Bay, with the 12th-year pro making head coach Mike Tomlin's decision a wise one by making a sound contribution to the Steelers' 38-13 rout of the then-unbeaten Buccaneers.

Making his first start since the 2007 regular-season finale and only his fifth since 2002, Batch showed only glimpses of rust in leading the offense to its best output of the young season. The 35-year-old directed touchdown drives on four straight first-half possessions to help Pittsburgh take a commanding 28-6 lead into the locker room, and finished with 186 yards on an efficient 12- of-17 passing.

Batch wasn't just a caretaker, either. He matched a career-best with three touchdown passes, two of which came on deep balls to wide receiver Mike Wallace as part of a 100-yard effort from the second-year speedster.

"For me, the one thing I didn't want to do was to come out here and be that weak link," said Batch, who entered training camp fourth on the depth chart behind Roethlisberger, journeyman Byron Leftwich and youngster Dennis Dixon. "I wanted to go out here and provide a spark and put this team in the end zone."

Pittsburgh had produced just one offensive touchdown in its first two games, both of which were started by the now-injured Dixon after Leftwich sprained a knee during the final week of the preseason. Though Leftwich is now healthy, Tomlin revealed in his Tuesday press conference that Batch will start against Baltimore as Roethlisberger serves the final test of his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.

"We have a great deal of trust in all of our men, but particularly Charlie," said Tomlin after Sunday's win. "He is a veteran guy. He's not careless with the ball."

Batch, who did throw a pair of interceptions in the victory, was backed up by the strong running of top back Rashard Mendenhall and by a defense that was its usual ferocious self on Sunday. The group came through with four sacks and a pair of turnovers, including an interception by Brett Keisel that the unheralded end returned 79 yards for a touchdown for Pittsburgh's final points.

Mendenhall ripped off 143 yards and a score on only 19 carries against the Bucs, and the 2008 first-round choice presently stands fourth in the league with 332 rushing yards through the first three weeks.

BENGALS: It was hardly a thing of beauty, but the Cincinnati Bengals were able to keep pace with Baltimore and remain within striking distance of the 3-0 Steelers in the division standings following Sunday's 20-7 decision over the winless Carolina Panthers at a soggy Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

The Bengals were able to halt a five-game road losing streak by having their way with a punchless and mistake-prone Panthers bunch that had rookie Jimmy Clausen making his first NFL start at quarterback. Carolina was held to 267 yards by Cincinnati's sturdy defense and converted just 2-of-11 third-down opportunities, while turning the ball over four times.

Despite the Panthers' inability to mount a sustained attack, the Bengals carried only a three-point lead into the fourth quarter due to their own offensive limitations and failure to take advantage of opportunities. Cincinnati didn't convert any of its first three takeaways into points and badly mismanaged their final drive of the opening half, with time expiring as the team moved down to their opponents' five-yard line.

"We have a hard time making it easy," head coach Marvin Lewis admitted afterward.

Of perhaps greater concern to the Bengals was a second straight shaky performance out of quarterback Carson Palmer. The battle-tested veteran looked more like a player of Clausen's experience level on the afternoon, missing several open targets and making an alarming amount of head-scratching decisions with the football in overseeing an offense that stalled for a good portion of the game.

Palmer made good on just 19-of-37 throws for 195 yards and a touchdown while being intercepted twice, though there were a few other passes that went in and out of defenders' hands. The former Heisman Trophy winner also wasn't sharp in the Bengals' Week 2 verdict over Baltimore, completing under half of his attempts and finishing with a modest 167 yards.

Over Cincinnati's first three games, Palmer has a pedestrian 71.3 passer rating and a 56.6 percent completion rate, numbers strikingly similar to his injury-riddled 2008 campaign in which the Bengals won just four times.

While Lewis acknowledged the offense's need for better execution in his Monday presser, he didn't seem overly worried by Palmer's early struggles.

"I think he does a good job of directing us," said Lewis of his quarterback. "He's been a good leader. When he has opportunities to throw the football and deliver the ball, he does an excellent job. [Sunday] he had some guys not quite do the things he needs them to do right. It all reflects back on the quarterback."

Cincinnati will set its sights on a second straight road triumph when the reigning AFC North champions visit 0-3 Cleveland this Sunday. The Bengals will be entering the latest Battle of Ohio having won eight consecutive times against division members.

BROWNS: Even after being handed a third straight close loss to begin the season, there were a number of positives that came out the Browns' seven-point defeat to 2009 playoff-participant Baltimore.

The most notable bright spot was the play of Hillis, a former fullback in Denver acquired as part of the trade that sent one-time starting quarterback Brady Quinn to the Broncos in March. The versatile 24-year-old shattered his previous personal bests by amassing 144 yards on 22 attempts against the Ravens' formidable defense, while adding another 36 yards on a team-best seven receptions.

Hillis also scored a touchdown for a third straight week and is averaging an impressive 5.6 yards per carry through his first three games as a Brown. The third-year pro also tops the club with 14 catches out of the backfield.

"I guess he's a guy you have to see in person to appreciate him," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of Hillis. "He is physical. I mean, this guy is hard to bring down. And he's a guy we're going to have to contend with for a long time in this division."

Wallace also acquitted himself well in his second start in place of an ailing Jake Delhomme at quarterback. The athletic ex-Seahawk completed 18-of-24 passes for 141 yards in Cleveland's run-oriented approach and did not have a turnover.

With Delhomme still a question mark due to a high ankle sprain the offseason pickup suffered in the Browns' Week 1 loss at Tampa Bay, Wallace could find himself directing the offense once more in this Sunday's visit to Cincinnati.

Cleveland's three losses have come by a total of 12 points, and the competition the team has faced doesn't seem nearly as suspect as initially believed. Tampa Bay and Kansas City, two last-place finishers from a year ago that edged the Browns in the opening two weeks, are a combined 5-1 in the early going.

"We're very close," said Wallace after Sunday's game. "It's going to take time. We've still got a lot of new faces on this team and we just can't press. We just [have to] continue to keep working each week and it'll work its way out."

A little better health could help the Browns get over the hump as well. In addition to Delhomme, Cleveland was without its best two pass rushers, outside linebacker Marcus Benard and defensive lineman Shaun Rogers, for the Baltimore game because of ankle problems, while starting inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson had to be placed on injured reserve last week after developing a setback in his recovery from a torn pectoral muscle.

With Benard and the space-eating Rogers both not present, the Browns did not have a sack against the Ravens and were shredded by the Flacco/Boldin combo.

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