CLEVELAND - Turnovers have led this Ravens' road trip into a dead end.
A third-place record has changed this journey into a crossroads.
Swallowing some pride as a franchise yesterday, the Ravens watched their title defense get put on notice in a humbling 24-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Undone by three turnovers and seven sacks, the Ravens were defeated by Cleveland for the first time since the club's move from here by owner Art Modell, who declined to comment on the loss. Unable to stop big plays, the Ravens have landed with a thud into third in the AFC Central, falling to 3-3 and feeling their season now teetering.
"Right now, we're not clicking on any cylinders," tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "Nothing seems to work. When we get something going, we find a way to mess it up. Right now, if the playoffs were to start today, we're not a football team that would deserve to be in the playoffs.
"We've got 10 games left. We've got a long ways to go, but we got a very short time to get there."
Once again, the Ravens' defense flopped against deep routes. This time, Browns quarterback Tim Couch beat cornerback Duane Starks on quick touchdown strikes of 28 and 36 yards that put Cleveland ahead 24-6 in the third quarter.
Once again, Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac couldn't survive porous pass protection, exiting with 5 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter with a rib contusion. Chest X-rays were negative, and Grbac is listed as day-to-day.
"I don't know [if I can play]," said Grbac, who was 16 of 20 passing for 142 yards with two interceptions and a fumble. "I've never had this before. We'll see as the next couple days go on. It's kind of hard to breathe and move around a little bit. We'll see what Monday and Tuesday brings."
In the midst of playing a stretch of four road games over five weeks, the Ravens were given no reprieves. They won the statistical battle, outgaining Cleveland, 321-219, and holding the Browns without a third-down conversion, but lost the turnover war.
With the Ravens trailing 10-6 early in the third quarter, James Trapp flattened Cleveland punt returner Dennis Northcutt with a helmet-to-helmet hit at the Browns' 20-yard line, forcing the ball out. Trapp jumped on the loose ball, but officials ruled the whistle blew before Northcutt lost the ball.
Although Ravens coach Brian Billick attempted to challenge the call, officials told him the play could not be reviewed because the whistle had blown.
"There wasn't a whistle," Trapp said.
Nine plays later, Couch hit Kevin Johnson on a 28-yard touchdown pass that drew the ire of the Ravens. Running in stride with Starks down the sideline, Johnson appeared to have pushed off at the 5, creating the separation needed for the catch that increased the lead to 17-6.
"I think he paid the refs off on that," Starks said. "He pushed me 3 yards away from him, and I had to make up enough speed to catch up with him again. It was real obvious what happened."
Said Billick: "We'll turn it in [to the league office,] and they'll come back with the appropriate response."
On the next series, the Ravens found themselves on the wrong side of another debatable turnover. Running away from an endless pass rush, Grbac was caught from behind by linebacker Jamir Miller and fumbled.
But Grbac, who has eight interceptions and four fumbles in four road games, questioned this miscue.
"I thought my knee was down," Grbac said, "but we'll look at the film."
The next play, Couch got the best of Starks on a 36-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Morgan, extending the margin to 24-6 with 5:20 left in the third. Stretching out for the ball at the goal line, Starks went for the interception and tipped the ball, which fell into the hands of Morgan.
At that point, Grbac walked off the field for X-rays from an injury that occurred on an earlier third-quarter sack. It was the same story, different injury from a week ago, when Grbac left with a concussion and a sprained neck.
Backup Randall Cunningham had similar results as Grbac yesterday behind a sieve-like offensive line. He did, however, produce the Ravens' only touchdown, hitting Qadry Ismail on a 22-yard pass midway through the fourth quarter.
In his post-game news conference, Billick was asked who would start at quarterback next week against Jacksonville.
Grbac still has the backing of his teammates.
"It's not Elvis' fault," Sharpe said. "We're not protecting Elvis. But by the same token, he understands that he has to take better care of the football. We'll get that corrected. If not, we'll be sitting home that second week in January."
Running back has become a hot topic with the Ravens. According to a league source, the Ravens have been looking to trade for a running back this past week, shopping around defensive tackle Lional Dalton. The trading deadline is tomorrow.
The Ravens, though, were more concerned about their present troubles than future movement.
"We're 3-3, and if we don't take it seriously, we can be 8-8," safety Rod Woodson said. "We've got to pick it up - now."
Second place is gone. The title defense is being questioned.
"We're at the crossroads," Sharpe said. "Where do we want to go from here? Do we want to go up or do we want to feel sorry for ourselves?"
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