- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Baltimore Ravens have arrived at the midway point of the season exactly where they want to be — first place in the AFC North.

With a one-game lead over the surprising Cincinnati Bengals (3-4), and more importantly, a commanding two-game cushion over the nemesis Pittsburgh Steelers (2-5), the Ravens (4-3) have an opportunity to stretch their division lead today when the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6) limp into M&T; Bank Stadium.

Since coach Brian Billick took over for Ted Marchibroda in 1999, this is traditionally the time of year when the Ravens elevate their game. Baltimore has gone 23-11 (.676 winning percentage) in November and December under Billick.

Many compare this Ravens team to the 2000 Super Bowl champions because of the way it wins games — with a dominant defense, an outstanding running game and excellent special teams play.

The main difference is age. The Super Bowl team was loaded with high-priced veterans and future Hall of Famers, while this team is the second youngest in the AFC with an average age of 25 years and eight months.

“This team still has a lot of upside, and that is what is exciting to me,” Billick said. “There are a lot of things to learn, and we’ll have some tough times as well. But this team still has a lot of upside because of its youth. The personality and the youth of this team makes them dramatically different than the 2000 team.”

Today’s game will showcase the only two starting rookie quarterbacks in the league in Jacksonville’s Byron Leftwich, a District native, and Baltimore’s Kyle Boller.

On draft day, Leftwich was perhaps minutes or even seconds away from being drafted by the Ravens. General manager Ozzie Newsome was busy trying to swing a trade with Minnesota so the Ravens could move up to Minnesota’s spot and select Leftwich with the Vikings’ seventh overall pick.

But the 15-minute time clock ran out on the Vikings forfeiting their pick, and the Jaguars swooped in and nabbed the strong-armed Leftwich with the next pick. Immediately after taking pass rushing specialist Terrell Suggs with the 10th pick, the Ravens turned their attention back to a quarterback and made a deal with the New England Patriots that enabled them to select Boller later in the first round with the 19th pick.

“It is not Byron Leftwich against Kyle Boller — it is the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Baltimore Ravens,” Leftwich said. “I am sure that he is going to do the things that he has to do to win the game, and I am going to do the same.”

Meanwhile, Ravens running back Jamal Lewis needs only 23 yards to become the first NFL back to rush for more than 1,000 this season, but his franchise record of six consecutive 100-yard rushing games might be in jeopardy.

Jacksonville ranks sixth in the league in run defense (641 yards, 3.5 average). Against the formidable front four of tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, and Pro Bowl ends Tony Brackens and Hugh Douglas, Ravens running yards may be at a premium.

“Any little thing that we can get to slow down Jamal will be great,” said Jaguars first-year coach Jack Del Rio, who was the Ravens’ linebackers coach from 1999 to 2001 and helped mold Baltimore’s 2000 record-setting defense. “Our two big tackles are doing a nice job for us, and they continue to get better. We are going to need big days out of them to slow down Jamal.”

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