Grudge match inspires fans, but not players; 0-2 Ravens, Browns downplay rhetoric; Siragusa (surgery) out

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One city is obsessed with winning today. The other has only normal interest. Both owners have personal and professional pride invested, and the pressure on both rookie coaches to win is enormous.

And then there are the players. Truth be told, they don't care about anything but winning a game. Any game. Welcome to the Cleveland Browns (0-2) vs. the Ravens (0-2) at 1 p.m. today at PSINet Stadium. The winner climbs one game above the other in last place in the AFC Central Division.

It has been nearly four years since Ravens owner Art Modell announced he was moving the old Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore, but Browns fans are treating this as a Super Bowl, and maybe they should, with a 56-man roster composed of 43 veterans from 20 NFL teams.

But while portions of the national and Cleveland media have descended upon Baltimore in the past week trying to rekindle memories of five former Browns left on the Ravens' roster, they have found little except a team desperate to win. The Ravens will have to do so without defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, who had arthroscopic surgery yesterday on his left knee.

The Ravens' feelings are similar to those among Colts players when the Ravens traveled to Indianapolis three years ago, the first time a Baltimore NFL team played against the Colts, who moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984.

"It brings back some memories, the nostalgia," said Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett, one of the five former Browns along with kicker Matt Stover, safeties Bennie Thompson and Stevon Moore and defensive tackle Larry Webster. "But this happens every week where a guy plays against his former team. It's not like I'm going to start crying or something."

Defensive end Michael McCrary said: "Their whole city is letting them know they don't care about the season, just beat Baltimore. I don't care if it's the Cleveland Browns or the Denver Broncos. Somebody has got to win this game, and I don't want to go 0-3. I expect their whole team to come out fired up, but we'll be the same way for a much different reason."

Publicly, both coaches have downplayed the game, but it has become a personal issue, too. The Ravens got a jump on the Browns when Brian Billick turned down the Cleveland job after Browns vice president Dwight Clark made an ill-advised trip to Minnesota to meet with Billick following the NFC championship game on Jan. 9.

Ten days later, Billick was named Ravens coach. Two days later, the Browns named Chris Palmer their coach. Palmer was the second choice behind Billick in both situations.

There is also a strained relationship between Modell and Browns owner Al Lerner.

Once close friends and former owners of the Browns, they no longer talk, separated by the move in which Lerner played a major part, including having the deal consummated on his private plane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Modell's financial problems have persisted since the move to Baltimore.

Lerner, with his deep pockets, has tried to distance himself as much as possible from Modell while trying to earn back the respect of Cleveland fans.

"I think fans and the media have more of a particular interest in this game than we do, but we're preparing for this like any other game," Palmer said.

Billick joked about the pressure but has a feel for the situation.

"There have been no veiled threats on my family, but it's obvious," Billick said. "I got a sense of it when I talked with both the Ravens and the Browns about the head-coaching position. But I didn't have an appreciation for the emotions that run between these two franchises. I have a better understanding now.

"This is going to be a good rivalry, very intense, I imagine."

The Ravens will have two new starters on offense -- Stoney Case at quarterback and Errict Rhett at running back.

Case and Rhett played in last Sunday's 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Case completed seven of 15 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown in the second half against the Steelers, leading the Ravens to a field goal and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Rhett rushed for 101 yards on 22 attempts in place of Priest Holmes, who is still bothered by a knee sprain. Case replaces Scott Mitchell, who was benched five minutes into the third quarter of last week's game.

"This is going to be a lot of fun," Case said. "This is a great opportunity for me, and I have to focus and lead this offense. But I feel very good about what this team is capable of doing."

The Ravens' offensive line is eager to block for Rhett.

"He brings a lot of energy to the offense," said right guard Jeff Blackshear. "He is a cutback runner, but he also runs tough. Rhett is always talking, especially to the defense. He talks in his sleep."

Defensively, the Ravens must do without Siragusa. The 10-year veteran, who is third on the team in tackles with 12, could miss as many as two games after yesterday's surgery. Team officials will make a decision on his status tomorrow. Siragusa had been bothered by swelling and floating particles in the knee most of last week and missed two days of practice.

Siragusa will be replaced by second-year player Lional Dalton, who will alternate with second-year defensive tackle Martin Chase.

The key for the Ravens will be getting pressure on Browns rookie quarterback Tim Couch. The Browns have acquired two veteran offensive tackles, Lomas and Orlando Brown, who are not related, to protect Couch.

Orlando Brown played for the Ravens the past three seasons. He is known for his cheap shots and losing his temper. His game is intimidation.

"Lomas is a technician. Zeus [Orlando Brown] is a mauler," McCrary said. "This is a big game for him [Orlando]. He'll be out there cussing and talking before the game. But that's his style. One thing you have to say about him, he plays hard."

The game doesn't appear to be much of a matchup. Cleveland is averaging only 46 rushing and 60.5 passing yards a game, worst in the league. The Browns' defense is allowing 438 yards a game, next to worst in the league. Cleveland will be without starting free safety Tim McTyer, cornerback Antonio Langham, right guard Steve Zahursky and defensive tackle John Jurkovic.

"With Couch, it's a question of what kind of blitz can I come up with today," Palmer said. "But it's only two games, and it's not the end of the world. We'll get better as the season goes along. You have to take steps before you run."

But the Ravens won't take Cleveland lightly. They've been burned by lesser quarterbacks than Couch, such as the St. Louis Rams' Kurt Warner two weeks ago.

Also, Palmer helped design the offenses in Jacksonville that have tortured the Ravens with six straight losses in three seasons.

"There is no way we can come into the game overconfident," Billick said. "We're 0-2."

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