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Leader of the pack - and Barber hardly plays

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tiki Barber is the least-used most valuable player in the league.

The New York Giants running back has raced to the league lead in rushing with 240 yards on just 24 carries.

It's a small number of opportunities, leading to bigger returns and fewer doubters. The role is tailor-made for Barber, a finesse back who doubles as a punter returner and tends to wear down over long periods.

Barber's two-game figure leaves him 108 yards behind last year's team-leading total for the entire season, 348 yards by Joe Montgomery. He is also aiming to become the first Giants back to win the rushing title in 49 years.

"I'm like Forrest Gump," Barber said. "When I get the ball, I'm running.

"If I can lead the league in rushing carrying 11 times a game, so be it. You won't hear me complaining. But you'll have every offensive coordinator in the league dialing up Sean Payton, saying, 'How are you doing it?' "

But the Giants backed into this luxury. They drafted Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne in the first round and pegged Barber as a third-down back.

That forced a change in attitude for Barber, who has admitted his self-confidence was so low two years ago that there was a game when he hoped they wouldn't throw him the ball because he thought he might drop it and later did. This time, the fourth-year back didn't drop his chance and nudged his way back into the Giants plans with timely long runs and three touchdowns.

Dayne still has more carries (44), yet his longest run is 13 yards. Barber, meanwhile, is averaging 10 yards.

"I'd be less than honest with you if I said I thought he was going to be averaging 10 yards a carry and leading the NFL," Giants coach Jim Fassel said. "But I truly believed the guy was going to have an outstanding year."

The money factor

The Ravens' early breakout this season can be credited to the team's breaking out the wallet.

Coinciding with the franchise's first 2-0 start, the Ravens had the NFL's second-largest opening-day payroll at $77.1 million, trailing only the Washington Redskins. Team president David Modell, though, downplayed the significance.

"It is what it is," Modell said. "I think the important points are we demonstrate our desire to win and our willingness to do what it takes to win by compensating our team fairly. And I think very importantly, there are a lot of different ways to skin a cat. I think the way we have chosen to do that is to develop home-grown talent that we've drafted and we've wanted to keep those guys here. And so I think, overall, that our use of free agency has been complementary."

But it was only four years ago, when the franchise was so strapped by the salary cap that it couldn't field a full practice squad. This year, the Ravens not only signed two first-round draft picks, Jamal Lewis and Travis Taylor, and high-profile free agent Shannon Sharpe but made Jonathan Ogden the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league.

So, how much did it help receiving the infusion of money from new minority owner Stephen Bisciotti?

"I think certainly reorganizing the team's finances didn't hurt," Modell said.

Fourth-quarter master

The New York Jets' fast start is a result of quarterback Vinny Testaverde's strong finishes. Although it may be hard for some Ravens fans to believe, Testaverde is the most productive fourth-quarter quarterback in the NFL this season.

In the fourth quarter, he has completed 14 of 19 passes (73.7 percent) for 270 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 155.2 efficiency rating. By contrast, Testaverde is 25 of 62 (40.3 percent) for 272 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions for a 45.9 rating in the first three quarters.

"That's the way a real NFL quarterback plays," Jets coach Al Groh said. "That's why he's one of the best. He has the confidence of our team. We already knew this about him."

However, Testaverde might need to show up a little earlier today, when the Jets (2-0) play host to the Bills (2-0). Testaverde could become the first Jets quarterback since Joe Namath to lead the team to a 3-0 start.

Snowball brawl II?

It's expected to be 60 degrees and sunny for today's Denver at Oakland game, but Raiders fans will have snowballs on their minds.

It's the first meeting since snowballs from the stands at Denver's Mile High Stadium on Nov. 22 set off a minor brawl with the Raiders. Oakland tackle Lincoln Kennedy scaled a fence and scuffled with Broncos fans after getting hit in the face with a snowball, and cornerback Charles Woodson fired one into the stands and allegedly hit a fan in the face with it.

In total, eight fans were arrested, 13 cited and 50 ejected. Now, it could be the Broncos' turn in front of the firing squad of flying objects, with the Raiders anticipating their first sellout at Network Associates Coliseum in three years.

"We might want to wear body armor," Broncos receiver Travis McGriff said. "Those fans are nuts to begin with. Now it's going to be even crazier."

Quote of the week

"I feel pressure when I go to Walgreen's, wondering if I get the right size diapers for my 3-year-old. I try not to worry about all the pressure. I'm trying to enjoy this. We're going to try and win some games and have some fun, and if it's not good enough, somebody will let me know about it." - Raiders coach Jon Gruden on whether he feels pressure to produce this season, or be fired by owner Al Davis.

Full blitz

Steelers (0-1) at Browns (1-1): With Pittsburgh quarterbacks Kent Graham, Kordell Stewart and Tee Martin, it's one of those multiple-choice questions that has you searching for "None of the above."

49ers (0-2) at Rams (2-0): The NFL's worst pass defense against the league's best passing attack. No white flags included.

Saints (1-1) at Seahawks (0-2): Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said it "pinches a little nerve" that the Seahawks won't sell out for the second straight week. The fans want a winner, not a whiner.

Bengals (0-1) at Jaguars (1-1): Over the past 10 years, Cincinnati is 12-61 in games played during the first half of the season. But would it really make a difference when it played the Jaguars?

Cowboys (0-2) at Redskins (1-1): Is prime time now past Deion Sanders' bedtime? Not when he's playing the Cowboys, his former team.

End zone

The Jets and the Giants are attempting to start 3-0 in the same season for the first time in league history. ... St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner has 827 yards passing, the most ever in the NFL after the first two weeks in a season. He can become the fourth player since 1990 to throw for more than 1,000 yards in opening three games. ... The Detroit Lions are 20-4 at home against NFC Central teams, including 4-0 last year. ... In the past 34 games, five San Diego Chargers quarterbacks (Ryan Leaf, Jim Harbaugh, Moses Moreno, Erik Kramer and Craig Whelihan) have totaled 23 passing touchdowns, 63 interceptions and 35 fumbles. ... Since 1990, 13 teams have begun 0-2 and gone on to qualify for the playoffs. ... After the first two weeks of the season, the average margin of victory is 9.93 points, the lowest in 30 years.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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