CLEVELAND - Brian Billick tossed out the bait last week and his defense snatched it up like another unprotected football.

Looking to the history books for their motivation, the Ravens smothered the Cleveland Browns with their second straight shutout and third of the young season yesterday.

The 12-0 victory before a paid crowd of 73,018 at Cleveland Browns Stadium was less about art than realism. And reality said the hottest defense in the NFL is setting standards that will be hard to match.

History? The last team that threw back-to-back shutouts was the 1985 Chicago Bears. The last team that collected three shutouts in one season was the 1991 Washington Redskins.

Bottom line: Both teams won Super Bowls.

Billick, the Ravens' full-time psychologist and part-time historian, didn't miss his chance.

"We threw that out to our guys as a challenge," the Ravens coach said of the 15-year drought in back-to-back shutouts. "And that is no disrespect to the Browns. It didn't matter who we were coming in against."

The Ravens have two road wins this season and both are shutouts. They have won seven straight games against AFC Central Division opponents. They haven't allowed a touchdown in more than 133 minutes, dating to early in the fourth quarter of their loss in Miami. At 4-1, they enjoy the best start of their short Baltimore tenure.

In this case at least, domination starts with defense.

"Every NFL team has a $62 million salary cap," said defensive end Rob Burnett. "We're shutting them out, the best of the best, every week. We play the best available athletes money can buy.

"To be able to get a shutout in this league is phenomenal."

The Ravens have three shutouts in five games this season, four in their past seven. With Matt Stover kicking four field goals, they preserved yesterday's shutout with four turnovers and a resiliency in the red zone.

They were creative beyond conventional means. When the Browns (2-3) set up at the Baltimore 8 after a 38-yard pass from quarterback Tim Couch to David Patten in the second quarter, defensive back Robert Bailey forced Marc Edwards to fumble on consecutive plays.

The first came on a short pass at the 4, and Edwards fell on his own fumble. On the next play, the Browns ran Edwards up the middle, and the blitzing Bailey stripped the ball. That was recovered by Ravens safety Rod Woodson in the end zone.

"On the first one, I tried to hit him and drive my arms inside, and the ball came out," said Bailey, a free-agent addition in the off-season. "But it bounced right back to him.

"The second one, he was holding the ball on his side and I just jumped on him and swiped at his hand, and the ball came out."