- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The AFC North is imploding, and the Baltimore Ravens are dodging the falling debris. With the favored Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3), the Cleveland Browns (2-3) and Cincinnati Bengals (1-4) all struggling, the first-place Ravens are in position to win their first division title.

And with games coming up against the woeful Arizona Cardinals (1-4) on Sunday and the Bengals the following week, the Ravens have an opportunity to assume command of the AFC North.

“It’s there, truthfully, right in front of us,” middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “We understand that. I don’t think that it’s going to bother us that [the next opponent] is Arizona. I don’t think it’s going to bother us next week that it’s Cincinnati.”

Cornerback Corey Fuller insists the next two games against a pair of underachieving teams are vital.

“Players on good teams tend to take teams with bad records not so hard,” Fuller said. “I think this is the most critical time because you’re going to get up for Denver, you’re going to get up for the Kansas City Chiefs, but in this business you’ve got to be up every week. That’s why these are the two toughest games of the season.”

With the rest of arguably the NFL’s weakest division in trouble, the Ravens could conceivably win it with an 8-8 or 9-7 record. No team since the 1985 Browns has won a division title by going 8-8.

“We win this game, we’re definitely ahead of the pack,” wide receiver Travis Taylor said. “We got to keep it in perspective — this is the NFL, anybody can beat anybody. Chicago beat Oakland, and Indy came back from 21 down to beat Tampa Bay. If we don’t win the first one, the second one really doesn’t matter.”

If the Ravens do stumble in the next two weeks, it could seriously damage their postseason plans. With tough games remaining against Denver, St. Louis, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, Baltimore will have to take advantage of it’s early-season schedule.

Behind Jamal Lewis, the NFL’s leading rusher with 611 yards on 94 carries (a 6.5 average) and five touchdowns, the Ravens have the No.1 rushing attack.

One-quarter through the season, Lewis is on pace to become just the fifth player to rush for more than 2,000 yards, joining record-holder Eric Dickerson (2,105 yards for the 1984 Los Angeles Rams), Barry Sanders (2,053 yards for Detroit in 1997), Terrell Davis (2,008 yards for Denver in 1998) and O.J. Simpson (2,003 for Buffalo in 1973).

“It’s realistic [2,000 yards], but at this point it doesn’t really matter,” Lewis said. “I just want to be the best running back on the field that particular Sunday and hope to be [on] the best team on that particular Sunday.”

Notes — The Pro Football Hall of Fame will make a special presentation today to Lewis at the Ravens’ training facility for setting the NFL single-game record for rushing yards when he ran for 295 against the Browns on Sept.14. … The Ravens are considering changing the starting time of their Oct.26 home game against the Denver Broncos from 1 to 4:15p.m. for national television exposure. The 17-10 loss to the Chiefs on Sept.28 at M&T; Bank Stadium was originally scheduled for 1p.m. but was pushed back to accommodate CBS’ national broadcast.

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