Media darlings Indianapolis and New England posted impressive wins on Sunday, but the Ravens slapped Pittsburgh so hard the Penguins dropped two places in the NHL standings. Ray Lewis' return to the Baltimore lineup inspired the defense's second shutout performance of the season, a team effort that included nine sacks, two interceptions and a fumble returned for a touchdown. This defense doesn't just hold teams, it brutalizes them like O-Dog stomping a crackhead in Menace II Society. (Check that, it was Caine who did the stomping; O-Dog just casually and frequently blew people away). Pittsburgh converted only one third down in 12 attempts and Willie Parker, who came in as one of the top rushers in the AFC, was held to 22 yards on 10 carries.
On the other side of the ball, Steve McNair, Jamal Lewis and a suddenly impressive offensive line did exactly what is required of a unit that has to live in the defense's shadow while benefiting from its prowess. McNair picked apart the Pittsburgh secondary, going 18-24 with no interceptions and one touchdown. His longest completion was the 20-yard TD to Todd Heap, but he wasn't sacked or even forced to run, and he played a mistake free game. Lewis' longest gain from scrimmage was only 11 yards, but he scored a touchdown and, for the fourth straight game, did not fumble.
In 2000, after the Ravens edged the division-leading Tennessee Titans 14-13 to push their record to 7-4, Brian Billick threatened to fine anyone in the Baltimore organization who even uttered the word "playoffs." After starting the season 5-1, his team had suffered a three-game losing streak in which the offense had produced a paltry total of 15 points, and the head coach was understandably concerned about getting distracted and overconfident. Of course, the Ravens ripped through the rest of the season undefeated and went on to win Super Bowl XXXV. Now that Baltimore is 9-2, with the opportunity to clinch the division title this Thursday at Cincinnati, no such edict has been issued.
The last time the Ravens played the Bengals, Baltimore scored two quick touchdowns as Cincinnati fumbled away the opening kickoff and Carson Palmer's first pass was picked off and returned all the way. The Bengals fought to get back in the game, and injuries to Ed Reed and Ray Lewis weakened the Ravens on D, but not even some bewildering clock management by Billick in the fourth quarter could make up such a significant early deficit. Both teams will be on short rest this week, but a healthy Ravens' defense should scare Cincinnati.
ESPN's current power rankings place the Ravens third behind Indianapolis and San Diego (whom the Ravens beat). As usual, offensive pyrotechnics have captured the fancy of writers like Len Pasquarelli, who writes today about an increase in big plays and fails to mention that the Ravens' defense has scored five touchdowns this season and would have at least two more if a few defensive linemen hadn't run out of gas near the goal line on long fumble returns. This is exactly the sort of bulletin board material that will allow Billick to convince his team that they are not being given the respect they deserve. Opposing quarterbacks should double-check their insurance policies, and make sure their chiropractor and massage therapists have their calendars cleared.