REVERSE PLAY

The Baltimore Sun

The franchises have been intertwined from the moment the Cleveland Browns were resurrected in 1999, three years after Art Modell packed up more than three decades of memories and months of festering animosity and moved his team to Baltimore, renaming it the Ravens.

Since then, the Ravens and Browns have had little in common.

Nothing has changed much going into Sunday's game at M&T; Bank Stadium, with the teams seemingly headed in opposite directions. This time, however, the 4-5 Ravens and the 5-4 Browns have traded places in the AFC North hierarchy, as well as the pecking order in the NFL.

Asked whether it will feel strange coming to Baltimore as a three-point favorite, Browns coach Romeo Crennel laughed.

"When you look at my record for the last two years [10-22], yeah, I would say it is," Crennel said this week. "Whether I'm the favorite or the underdog, I need to win the game."

This season, the Ravens might need it more. Given the difficulty of their remaining schedule - and barring an unforeseen turnaround - the Ravens will be hard-pressed to finish .500. They have lost three consecutive games, the latest an embarrassing 21-7 defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at home.

Their downfall from a team that finished 13-3 last season can be traced directly to an offense ranked in the bottom third of many offensive categories.

"The game is now an offensive game," former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said last week. "I'm not just a believer that championships are won by playing great defense and stopping the run. To me, you've got to get explosive plays out of the passing game. It's too hard to grind out 80-yard, 15-play drives in today's game."

The Browns might not be proof that offense wins championships, but a more explosive offense has certainly overcome a defense ranked near or at the bottom in a number of categories. Before Sunday's 31-28 loss in Pittsburgh, the Browns had won three straight for the first time since 2001. They are looking for their first winning season since 2002.

"The guys have a little more confidence, we have better football players, there's been some continuity to the program. I think all those things helped us improve," Crennel said. "Sometimes in this business, improvement is not a straight line."

Former NFL coach Dan Reeves, who saw the Ravens play this season in his role as a radio analyst and has watched the Browns a couple of times on television, said the difference in the teams correlates to the quarterback position.

"The Browns have been searching for a quarterback, and now they've found one," Reeves said, referring to Derek Anderson, a third-year player who was drafted and waived by the Ravens in 2005. "The quarterback position has been unsettled in Baltimore with the injury to Steve [McNair]."

John Wooten, who played nine seasons in Cleveland and helped build the Ravens from the ground up as assistant director of player personnel, said the performance of the teams this season comes down to age and injuries.

"It's no secret that when you get past that 30 mark or get into that 30 area, you have to work harder to maintain your physical conditioning," Wooten said. "Braylon [Edwards] and Kellen [Winslow] were injured early, but because of their youth, they were able to come back quickly."

The turnaround in Cleveland can be linked directly to the college draft, something Browns general manager Phil Savage learned in his years working under Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore.

In 2004, before Savage's arrival in Cleveland, the Browns picked Winslow with the sixth overall selection. In 2005, they picked Edwards at No. 3. This year, it was offensive tackle Joe Thomas at No. 3 and quarterback Brady Quinn, who slipped to No. 22.

"We're finally on the landscape of the NFL, and we have something to build on," Savage said last night. "I hope we're able to keep going and win some games. It's been a lot of fun this year. The first two years were not much fun for anybody. I'm not saying that we have arrived, but some of the things we've done have come to fruition."

Said Reeves: "Teams like Cleveland, you keep drafting in the top five every single year, it's hard to do a bad job. You're going to get players, and players are going to do the job. I'm not taking anything away from Romeo; he's done a great job."

A team spokesman said yesterday that Newsome would not comment for this story.

Matt Stover, who played five seasons in Cleveland before moving with the team to Baltimore, said the Ravens helped pave the way for the Browns to become a team that can separate itself from a mostly miserable recent past.

"I think [the fans] did realize as time went on that the best thing that could have happened to them were those three years without football," Stover said. "They got a new stadium and a billionaire owner, which would have never happened if the team didn't come to Baltimore."

The differences between the teams are not simply found in their inverted records.

The Ravens and Browns are polar opposites, philosophically and structurally.

The Ravens have been built around their defense and running game by a coach, Brian Billick, who got the job based on coordinating a record-setting pass-happy offense in Minnesota. They have also become a team in transition, with Kyle Boller, 26, taking over for McNair, 34, this week against the Browns, with safety Ed Reed evolving into the defensive leadership role long dominated by linebacker Ray Lewis.

"I don't know if we've declined," Billick told reporters in Cleveland this week. "We have as many rookies [nine] as we do players over 30 [13]. I think Jonathan Ogden will face some hard decisions, as will Mike Flynn. There's always going to be some transition and certainly with the way our season has been going, not withstanding how we're going to finish it, there's always transition you have to account for.'"

The Browns have been built around their offense by Crennel, who helped put together a Super Bowl championship defense in New England. More importantly, he brought in Rob Chudzinski this year to run the offense that relies on Anderson's live arm, the athletic talents of Winslow and Edwards and what's left of former Ravens star Jamal Lewis' legs.

Most significantly, the current disparity is demonstrated by the status of the two head coaches. Crennel seems to have some breathing room for the first time, but the masses are breathing down Billick's neck. The insurance policy that sits in a trophy case in Owings Mills might be coming due very soon.

Sunday's game could determine whether the Browns remain a legitimate playoff long shot. It also could show if the Ravens, given their remaining schedule that includes a trip to San Diego followed by home games against the New England Patriots and Indiananapolis Colts, could be riding the longest losing streak in franchise history.

If anything, history is more on the side of the Ravens than it is the Browns.

"You take the Baltimore organization, they've won, it's a different feeling there," Reeves said. "Cleveland is searching for that. There are a lot of unanswered questions, how well they work together. Cleveland may turn around and struggle next year, I think Baltimore is going to be good next year."

don.markus@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jamison Hensley contributed to this article.

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