CLEVELAND - A trip to the Dawg Pound brought back the Ravens' bite.
A week after going out with a whimper in Oakland, the Ravens regained control of the division with a snarling attitude in a 35-0 thrashing of the Cleveland Browns yesterday.
The combination of Jamal Lewis' grinding running and a gashing defensive performance moved the Ravens back into sole possession of first place in the AFC North. Heading into the final week of the regular season, the Ravens (9-6) are clenching onto a one-game lead over Cincinnati (8-7), which lost in St. Louis.
A Ravens victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night or a Bengals loss against Cleveland would secure the first division title in the franchise's eight-year history. (A division title is the only playoff path for the Ravens with the AFC wild-card berths clinched yesterday.)
Speaking of history, Lewis' 205 yards rushing yesterday put him in line to crack the 2,000-yard milestone and possibly break the NFL's single-season rushing record. The Ravens' defense followed suit by reaching back into its own glorious past, forcing four turnovers to polish off its first shutout in two years.
"I think with this profile we're good enough to win a Super Bowl," center Mike Flynn said. "In the NFL these days, it's all about who gets hot."
No running back is hotter than Lewis, who needed a little more than a half to warm up.
On his first 17 carries, he gained 54 yards. On his last five, he galloped for 151 yards and two touchdowns.
When Lewis broke free, so did the Ravens. Their lead was 7-0 midway through the third quarter until Lewis put his teammates on his back.
Against a defense that put all of its energy into stopping him, Lewis made a game-turning cutback to his left, buckling all of the Browns who over-pursued to the right. His 72-yard dash to the end zone ignited a 28-point outburst over the final 21 minutes, 14 seconds.
"I think that broke their will," Lewis said of the second-longest run of his career. "They said, 'Well here it goes again.'"
Once again, Lewis demoralized the Browns (4-11), who yielded a single-game record 295 yards to him on Sept. 14. In two games against Cleveland this season, Lewis had 500 yards on 52 carries and four touchdowns.
After their first game with the Ravens, some of the Browns said Lewis' record was a fluke.
"I don't know what their excuse is going to be now," said Lewis, whose 226 yards from scrimmage were more than Cleveland's total offense as a team (211) despite sitting out the final 11:55.
Lewis is the first back to have two 200-yard games against one team in the same season since O.J. Simpson, who rushed for 250 and 219 yards in 1973 against the New England Patriots. With one game left, Lewis has 1,952 yards and needs 154 to eclipse Eric Dickerson's mark of 2,105.
"It's hard not to think about it," Lewis said of the rushing mark. "But we have to worry about a win so we can go to the playoffs. I think it's attainable, though. I know the offensive line is going to be all psyched up. If it's meant to be, it will be."
The Ravens' defense was psyched up since Wednesday, when, during its meeting, coach Brian Billick challenged the unit to create turnovers. It responded with three recovered fumbles and an interception, which led to 21 of the Ravens' 35 points.
While the defense paved the way to the end zone for the offense, it stonewalled the Browns. The Ravens allowed Cleveland inside the 20-yard line once and wouldn't budge past their own 37 beyond that.
It marked the first shutout since Dec. 23, 2001, when the likes of Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams and Rod Woodson roamed the defense.
"We've got to get the ball for our offense, and that's who we are," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "Brian felt it needed to be a shutdown or a shutout. He got what he asked for. I want to say, 'Go ahead and ask for it again next week.'"
Apparently, Terrell Suggs got the message. The rookie inflicted most of the punishment on quarterback Tim Couch, hitting him a half-dozen times and stripping him twice on two sacks.
Couch, who was sacked five times, was driven into the ground so many times that turf was imbedded into the side of his face mask. During his news conference, the first question asked was about his health.
The knockout punch on Couch and Cleveland came on Suggs' second forced turnover at the Browns' 24 with 12:11 left in the game. On the next play, Lewis followed the block of Orlando Brown - who pushed a Cleveland defender 10 yards downfield - to extend the Ravens' lead to 21-0.
"The young man keeps showing up," Billick said of Suggs, who set a team rookie record with his 12th sack. "It'll be great once he can finally shave."
Ninety seconds later, the rout was on as safety Chad Williams returned an interception 52 yards, which included his falling on his face before getting back to his feet to ramble into the end zone.
But Williams' impact was felt much earlier, when he popped running back Jamel White onto his back. After that, the Browns completed just eight of their last 22 throws as their receivers dropped passes if Couch wasn't getting hit in the process.
"When you see a guy get hit like that, it's always in the back of your mind," Williams said. "There's a thought in your head of, 'Is it going to be me this time?' That's what our defense brings to the table. It's intimidation."
As the Browns dealt with intimidation, the Ravens fought with distraction. Once the Ravens began their run, many of the players sneaked looks up at the scoreboard to see the Bengals - who began the day tied with the Ravens - were losing.
"Obviously, we do take those peeks," guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "You get that little grin and that feeling to finish it off."
The third-biggest margin of victory in Ravens' history also finished off an era for owner Art Modell, who fielded a team in Cleveland for the last time. Modell, who will sell the team to Steve Bisciotti at the end of the season, owned the Browns for 34 years before relocating the team to Baltimore in 1995.
"To do this for him and to close this chapter of his life on a positive note," Mulitalo said, "you can't ask for anything more."
Fittingly, the final chapter of the Ravens' regular season involves Pittsburgh, winner of the past two division titles.
"It's going to be a war," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "It's a playoff game, and we have to get it done. I wouldn't have it any other way than to play Pittsburgh for the division title."
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