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Ravens flying under the radar

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

BALTIMORE -- There is a new darkhorse contender in the AFC North, and it's not the team everyone expected.

Enter the 2008 Baltimore Ravens.

Perhaps you've heard of them.

Baltimore has the same core group that went 13-3 two years ago but was set back by injuries last season. The Ravens are healthy again and have pounded two division rivals on their way to a surprising first-place standing in the AFC North.

The Ravens made a major statement while all but eliminating Cleveland, the expected darkhorse, from contention with a 28-10 victory Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Baltimore (2-0) remains undefeated while Cleveland (0-3) has virtually no shot of winning the division and a slim chance of making the postseason, which many expected from the Browns after they posted 10 wins in 2007.

Sunday also marked a measure of revenge for the Ravens, who were 5-11 last season and swept by a then up-and-coming Cleveland team.

"They kicked us while we were down last year..." Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said. "We heard them talking. We heard them say how we have an old defense and we can't get back to form."

The Ravens have flown under the radar. They entered the season with quarterback concerns, a rookie head coach, and aging stars such as linebacker Ray Lewis and defensive backs Chris McAlister and Ed Reed.

Yet the Ravens have responded with two convincing wins in which their star players have stepped up in crucial moments.

Down 10-7 at halftime against Cleveland, Lewis had a jarring hit on Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. that knocked the ball loose and was intercepted by McAlister. That set up a Ravens touchdown in the third quarter. Then Reed followed up on the ensuing Cleveland drive by intercepting Derek Anderson's pass in stride and returning it 32 yards for Baltimore's second touchdown of the quarter.

Those two plays sealed the game.

Now the Ravens have an unexpected marquee matchup in prime time against the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) on "Monday Night Football" on Sept. 29.

"A lot of guys overlooked us and we kind of knew it," Baltimore defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "But we will slowly move up and get on people's map. We knew how it felt last year (to lose), and we don't want to be in that situation again."

Sunday was not a good day for the quarterbacks.

Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and Anderson combined for five interceptions. Anderson had an abysmal passer rating of 22.9; Flacco's rating was 47.8.

But Baltimore's defense played at a much higher level and held Cleveland's once high-powered offense scoreless in the second half.

Reed's interception return gave the Ravens a 21-10 lead, and from there the Browns were forced to throw the ball nearly every down. Anderson only completed 14 of 37 passes. He was intercepted three times and sacked five times.

"Whenever we get a lead, the sharks are going to feast," Scott said of his defense.

After blowing a must-win game, the Browns now have some major issues to address.

Cleveland head coach Romeo Crennel said that he's going to look at "all positions" heading into a Week 4 game against the winless Cincinnati Bengals (0-3). Many are wondering if that includes the quarterback, although Crennel refused to single out any one position.

In addition to Anderson's poor play, Cleveland gave up 151 rushing yards and the offensive line again did not play up to the same level it did in 2007.

"We're not a very good football team," Crennel said. "I don't know whether we're trying to live on the success we had last year, but it's not working. So we're going to have to do a lot better or this thing is really going to get away from us."

It might be too late.

The odds are definitely stacked against Cleveland to finish with a winning record. And with poor play on both sides of the football, the Browns so far have shown no ability to handle their lofty expectations.

The Browns still have four primetime games on national television in what is quickly shaping up to be an ugly season.

"That's what happens when you win -- the next year you are crowned the media darlings," Scott said. "But when you are crowned the darlings, you also put a huge bull's-eye on your chest. Now everybody else knows that and they're going to get up to play you.

"That organization has struggled for some years. They enjoyed some success, but you have to understand it's easy to compete when the whole world is against you. But when everybody is patting you on the back, then what do you do?"