- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s the identical scenario as last season: the Baltimore Ravens have to beat the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers to make the playoffs.

A year ago, the Ravens came up woefully short, losing to both the Browns (14-13) and Steelers (34-31) to finish 7-9 and out of the playoffs.

“Once we saw that on the schedule, that’s the first thing that came to mind. I said, ‘Man, [the NFL is] putting us in this position again,’” said running back Jamal Lewis, who needs 253 rushing yards in the Ravens’ last two games to become the fifth player in the NFL to rush for more than 2,000 in a season. “But it makes everything interesting, it makes it fun and it makes it what this game is all about — having to fight at the end for what really counts.”

The Ravens (8-6) are tied atop the AFC North with the surprising Cincinnati Bengals, and both a Ravens loss and a Bengals win would keep Baltimore from winning its first division title.

However, the Ravens still could grab the last remaining wild card spot by finishing with a better record than the Miami Dolphins (8-6) and Denver Broncos (9-5).

Baltimore’s best chance of qualifying for the playoffs is to win the AFC North.

This week the Bengals travel to the St. Louis Rams (11-3), who have won 13 straight home games, while the Ravens visit division rival Cleveland Browns (4-10), in what appears to be a winnable game. The Ravens squandered an opportunity to reclaim the division lead by losing to the 4-10 Oakland Raiders 20-12 on Sunday.

“There are a lot of combinations,” outside linebacker Peter Boulware said. “That’s another reason for us as players to just focus on playing football and winning. If you get caught in the numbers game and tiebreakers, it will really drive you crazy. So our No.1 focus is, ‘Let’s go out and play well against the Cleveland Browns.’”

Last season Baltimore entered the stretch drive of the season without five-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who had an injured left shoulder. Just having him on the field means the Ravens are better equipped to handle the final two games this time.

Lewis, the heart and soul of the league’s fifth-rated defense, was listed as questionable with a sore right shoulder in the team’s initial injury report yesterday. But he is expected to play against the Browns.

Having experienced the same thing last season, the youthful Ravens — now a year older and wiser — are better prepared for a playoff drive.

“Last year we kind of just slipped [into contention] and then thought, ‘Hey, now, we can really do this,’” said tight end Todd Heap, who is the team’s leading receiver with 55 receptions for 678 yards and three touchdowns. “This year it was more in our control, and we let it slip last week. None of us are happy with that.

“We don’t want it to end like it did last year, and we’re a different team than were last season. We realize some of the things that happened last year we can’t let happen again. We have to show that we’ve learned from our mistakes, can take care of business and make the playoffs.”

In other news, the Ravens signed former Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker T.J. Slaughter. Slaughter, 26, had 108 tackles last season as a part-time starter with the Jaguars. Slaughter replaces injured linebacker and special teams standout Adalius Thomas on the active roster.

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