Team closes gap on Jags in talent but not in series; 'Little mistakes' add up to 0-8 vs. division leader


Wait until next year.

The Ravens, still winless against their chief nemesis, will have to wait until the 2000 season to get another crack at the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Ravens are 0-8 against the Jaguars, who are now the class of the AFC Central, own the NFL's best record (10-1) and might be headed to their first Super Bowl. The Ravens have lost one-point games, three-point games and blowouts against the Jaguars.

In the wake of Sunday's come-from-ahead, 30-23 defeat, outside linebacker Jamie Sharper said he is encouraged by how much the Ravens have closed the gap on Jacksonville in terms of talent.

"They're not beating us with their athletic ability like they were in the past, when they would just go deep on us and get us with 70-yard touchdowns," Sharper said of the Jaguars. "Now we're beating them up physically, and it's little mistakes we're making and we can't get the victory."

Sharper pointed to the Tennessee Titans, second in the division at 9-2, as having turned a critical corner this year by handing Jacksonville its only loss.

"Tennessee beat Jacksonville; they're right there with them [in the standings] and they are going to the playoffs, too," Sharper said. "Once you beat the champion of the division, you step up to a different level. To be continued."

Defensive end Rob Burnett has lost to the Jaguars all 10 times he has faced them, going back to his 1995 season with the Cleveland Browns. Jacksonville was an expansion team that year.

"Winning is an attitude. It's also a belief," Burnett said. "You know you're going to win. When you don't, it's a shock. I think [the Jaguars] are at that point right now. I think [coach Tom] Coughlin has them believing in themselves and believing in his system. They've totally bought into it.

"I've got a lot of history with that team, and I've got a lot of respect for them."

Tight end update

Coach Brian Billick said the tight end position is unsettled as the Ravens begin to prepare for the visiting Titans on Sunday.

A. J. Ofodile, who suffered a sprained knee nine days ago against the Cincinnati Bengals and was inactive against the Jaguars, is expected to resume practicing tomorrow.

Aaron Pierce, who left Sunday's game with a strained right Achilles', is questionable for the Titans game.

That could mean that Greg DeLong, normally the team's H-back, could start at tight end.

"A. J.'s knee is pronounced healthy enough to practice, and he'll go," Billick said. "The problem with his injury is that he could be fine all week and he could get into the game, but if it gets hit just right, he could be down.

"How healthy Aaron is remains to be seen."

Harris' empty returns

Corey Harris had his best day of the season in the kickoff-return game against the Jaguars, with three attempts that produced 130 yards.

And his brightest moments went for naught.

Harris broke off a season-high 66-yard return in the second quarter, giving the Ravens the ball at the Jacksonville 35. The Ravens then gained 4 yards on two running plays, lost 5 on a false-start penalty against Everett Lindsay, then punted.

Then, in the fourth quarter, after Jacksonville had taken its first lead at 22-16 with 11: 44 left, Harris returned the ensuing kickoff 48 yards to the Jaguars' 44. The Ravens managed a first down, but punted after advancing only to the Jacksonville 35.

It didn't help that Harris was tackled from behind by kicker Steve Lindsey on his second big return.

"The kicker tackled me, but that's kind of deceptive, because before you get to the kicker, there are other guys [to worry about]," Harris said.

"I don't even worry about the kicker until I'm there. Previous to that, I straight-armed a guy and he actually fell. I need to see the first level [of coverage], then the second level, before I worry about him. While all that is going on, the kicker is steadily running and getting an angle on me. That time he got to me. We got the ball inside the 50 and it was great field position."

Toning down practice

Billick said the Ravens will practice with minimal or no contact for the rest of the reason. On Wednesdays, they will wear helmets and shoulder pads. On Thursdays and Fridays, they will practice in shorts.

"Everything we do from the off-season to training camp to the way we practice is geared toward being healthy and fresh for the games in December," Billick said. "We're at that point in the season where we can't keep beating them up."

Et cetera

Errict Rhett, sixth in the AFC with 774 yards rushing, has faded in recent weeks. Since getting his fourth 100-yard game of the year, Nov. 7 against Cleveland, the six-year veteran has rushed 55 times for 116 yards (2.1-yard average). When he lines up at left guard Sunday for Tennessee, veteran Bruce Matthews will break Jackie Slater's record for most games played by an offensive lineman. Matthews has played in 259. Quarterback Tony Banks is 6-3 as a starter in December, which gives him the fifth-best winning percentage (.667) among active quarterbacks in that month.

Contributing writer Maeleeke Lavan provided information for this article.

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