- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

The struggling Washington Redskins collide with the steaming Baltimore Ravens tonight in a neighborhood brawl.

The Redskins enter with a three-game losing streak and nearly dashed hopes of making the playoffs in coach Joe Gibbs’ first season back. In a rather stunning turn of events, Gibbs’ legendary offense is sputtering and his decision-making under fire.

The Ravens, meanwhile, are coming off a 27-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on “Monday Night Football.” Having given up nearly 400 yards in each of the past two games, the Baltimore defense wants to return to the level that helped the club win the AFC North in 2003 and carry visions of the Super Bowl into this season.

A heated if brief rivalry provides the backdrop for what has become known as the “Battle of the Beltways.” Though supremacy of the Washington-Baltimore area wouldn’t qualify as either team’s key motivation, bragging rights certainly play a role.

“I definitely think it’s a rivalry,” Redskins offensive tackle Chris Samuels said. “They’re an hour away. There’s a lot of people getting worked up for this game.”

Said Ravens safety Ed Reed: “These are the games that you live for. This is why we represent Baltimore and they represent D.C.”

All that separated the teams the last time they met, on Oct.15, 2000, was a late 33-yard touchdown run by Redskins running back Stephen Davis. Baltimore was en route to a Super Bowl victory and Washington was destined for a collapse, but that day the Redskins wore down the Ravens and won 10-3.

A similar defensive battle is expected tonight. The Redskins enter with the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense and No.1 unit against the run, while the Ravens boast linebacker Ray Lewis, perhaps the dominant player of his generation, and every reason to think they can duplicate last year’s No.3 ranking.

Plus, both offenses are in rough shape. While the Ravens cope with a young quarterback, Kyle Boller, and the distraction of star running back Jamal Lewis’ legal proceedings, neither of Gibbs’ hand-picked skill players — quarterback Mark Brunell or running back Clinton Portis — is performing to expectations.

Indeed, it has been a dubious start for Gibbs, who won three Super Bowl titles in his first stint. This season the coach has challenged calls awkwardly, burned too many timeouts and run an offense that once dominated the NFL but now is seen as perhaps too predictable.

Following last week’s loss in Cleveland, Portis said the Browns’ defense “knew every play we were running.” Coaches later refuted Portis, who declined further comment. Predictable or not, the unit will struggle to get back on track tonight against a defense freshly burned for 125 rushing yards by the Chiefs’ Priest Holmes.

“That’s a prideful group,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said of his defense. “They don’t like having done to them what happened the other night. I’ve seen that look in their eyes before. They’re going to want to come back and show they’re better than that.”

Washington lost an opportunity to right its season against the Browns, who appeared destined for an ugly loss until Portis fumbled on the first play of the second half. The Redskins withered at that point, failing to re-establish offensive momentum and giving up just enough big plays to produce a 17-13 loss.

The defeat ended hope that the Redskins would rebuild quickly under Gibbs. Players came to grips with the new paradigm this week by refocusing their attention and trying to reconstruct their confidence.

“We’ve been in a couple meetings this week,” linebacker Marcus Washington said. “Guys just kind of re-made our goals. Just because we’ve lost three, we can’t stop working hard. We’ve got to push even harder. Guys understand that. We’re in this thing together.”

With three-quarters of the season remaining, Gibbs’ first year is far from lost, and the club’s attitude seems to reflect that. Inside a boisterous locker room Friday afternoon, Brunell gestured to his teammates and remarked how the mood remains upbeat.

“You’re in here. You can tell,” Brunell said. “It’s still positive. We’ll see if it translates into a victory.”

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