Two teams off to unexpected starts

The Baltimore Sun

The NFL season is only two weeks old and there are already surprises, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers not having a victory. And the Cleveland Browns are in that group, too.

So far, it has been a season of unfulfilled expectations for the Browns. Since they returned to Cleveland for the 1999 season, the NFL and the national media couldn't wait to make the Browns America's Team, Version 2.0.

As soon as the Browns came close to being a playoff team last season, finishing 10-6, we started hearing the stories of their glorious past and of Paul Brown, Jim Brown and the Cardiac Kids.

And we revisited the Browns' move from Cleveland to Baltimore and life in Cleveland without the Browns. And if Cleveland got to the playoffs this season, ultimately we were going to hear about the team and city's return to glory.

That story line might have to wait another year.

The Browns will limp into M&T; Bank Stadium on Sunday having been pushed around and pummeled in the first two games by the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers. And if Cleveland isn't careful, its season might be over in the next two games with losses to the Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals.

That's what's so intriguing about Sunday's game. No one is certain where these two teams are headed. We all thought we knew in the preseason, but times have changed.

It's still pretty safe to assume the Ravens won't make the playoffs, but the team's season-opening win against the Bengals produced some optimism. Of course, it was the Bengals, but there were signs of hope.

The defense dominated, especially the front seven, which is as good as any in the NFL. The secondary held up physically after three of the four starters missed extensive time in training camp because of injuries.

The Ravens' young offensive line showed improvement and physically dominated the Bengals. There were several dropped passes, but at least the passing game had a rhythm that wasn't there in the preseason.

We got a chance to see two prospects at running back in Ray Rice and Le'Ron McClain and the continued progress of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, who might finally be this team's true leader of the future.

With the Ravens, there aren't a lot of expectations this season. When they win a game this year, it's like winning the lottery.

With the Browns, it's different. At the end of last season, they supposedly had found their quarterback of the future in former Raven Derek Anderson, and he was going to carry this young but talented team into the playoffs.

But these new Browns look a lot like the recent Browns. They are ranked last in the league in points, averaging only eight a game, and No. 28 on defense in yards per game, allowing 384.

You can blame some of the rough start on injuries to wide receiver Donte' Stallworth (quadriceps), safety Sean Jones (knee), linebacker Antwan Peek (knee) and defensive end Robaire Smith (Achilles tendon). Anderson also missed three weeks of training camp with a concussion.

But it goes deeper than injuries. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards can't hold on to the ball, and tight end Kellen Winslow has not been a factor in the offense. Coach Romeo Crennel's clock-management decisions have been horrendous, and some of the players the Browns mortgaged their 2008 draft for in trades, such as nose tackle Shaun Rogers and defensive end Corey Williams, have been disappointing.

And running back Jamal Lewis, a former Raven?

He can't even get to the line of scrimmage because the team's run blocking has been so poor.

A team like the Browns can be very dangerous. They're hungry for a win, and their backs are against the wall. They have played two of the better teams in the league in the Cowboys and Steelers, both undefeated after two games.

Because of Hurricane Ike last weekend, the Ravens' game against the Houston Texans was rescheduled for later in the season. The Ravens have beaten only Cincinnati (0-2), which might be the worst team in the NFL.

There is a lot of gray area for both of these teams. Are the Browns as bad as they've looked? Are the Ravens as solid as they seemed against the Bengals? On Sunday, we'll find out just where they both are in the building process.

Listen to Mike Preston on Mondays from 4 to 6 p.m. on WVIE (1370 AM).

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