CLEVELAND - The Ravens' run for glory began with a huge dose of misery yesterday, when they bowed to the Cleveland Browns, 20-3, in a humbling season opener.
After months of proclaiming themselves Super Bowl contenders, the Ravens fell silent with untimely defense and unsightly offense, a combination that doomed them against a team generally predicted to finish last in the AFC North division.
"It's hugely disappointing to lose the opener," Ravens coach Brian Billick said to open his post-game news conference. "We are better than that, and we'll be better than that."
The upset loss on a beautiful summer day before a capacity crowd of 73,068 extended a year of troubling events, from the failed trade for receiver Terrell Owens to Jamal Lewis' indictment on federal drug conspiracy charges.
The Ravens, though, consider the defeat a setback, not a season-ender.
"We know where we're trying to go without putting all our season in one game," All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Our path hasn't changed."
Nearly a year after his NFL record-setting performance against the Browns, Ravens running back Jamal Lewis set a mark of a different sort yesterday. Last season's NFL Offensive Player of the Year managed 57 yards rushing, his lowest total in seven meetings against Cleveland. He averaged 2.9 yards per carry and failed to break a run longer than 9 yards.
It was a performance that hardly resembled the 295 yards he racked up last September yet typified a day of struggles for the offense. The Ravens never crossed the Browns' 24-yard line, much to the liking of fans rooting against the team that left Cleveland nearly nine years ago.
"Of course, they were not going to let us come in and do what we did last time," said Lewis, who had gained at least 100 yards in his past five games against the Browns.
Part of the problem was the Ravens' offensive line.
"You hate to lose your good people," Billick said, "but we're certainly not going to use that as an excuse for losing."
Actually, there were plenty of excuses to go around.
Lackluster returns and penalties from special teams continually backed up the Ravens inside their 20-yard line. The play-calling, especially on critical third downs, was suspect. Second-year quarterback Kyle Boller was wildly inaccurate at times to finish 22-for-38 for 191 yards passing and two interceptions.
Even the Ravens' vaunted defense couldn't escape unscathed, feeling the sting of a three-minute lapse in focus.
Late in the third quarter, safety Ed Reed gambled for an interception and let Browns receiver Quincy Morgan slip past him for an easy, 46-yard touchdown that broke a 3-3 tie.
On the next defensive series, it was the Ravens' other safety - Will Demps - who couldn't keep up with sprinting receiver Andre Davis and was burned for a 51-yard play. The Browns finished that drive with a 25-yard field goal, which increased the lead to 13-3 and essentially put the game away midway through the fourth quarter.
Take away those two plays and the Ravens held Cleveland to 153 yards of total offense.
"If you make mental mistakes, you lose," Ray Lewis said. "You don't have to complicate the game of football."
The Ravens' third straight season-opening loss sets up an intriguing home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. The Ravens have never reached the playoffs after starting 0-2.
"It definitely makes this next one a huge game for us," tight end Todd Heap said. "We have to see how we bounce back from this. We'll see what we're made of."
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