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BALTIMORE — As Baltimore Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller launched his audition to remain under center whenever starter Steve McNair recovers from a shoulder injury, his performance began erratically and ended with promise.
It was a mixed bag for Boller as he led the Ravens to four scoring drives in the fourth quarter as they lost 33-30 in overtime to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
During the first half, Boller couldn’t engineer a first down for nearly 29 minutes until he hit tight end Quinn Sypniewski with an 11-yard pass.
By halftime, Boller had completed just 5 of 11 passes for 24 yards, an interception and a putrid 14.6 quarterback rating. The Ravens had just 14 net passing yards and two first downs in the first half.
"We definitely didn’t start out the way that we wanted to," said Boller, who completed 17 of 30 passes for 255 yards in the second half. "We kind of regrouped at halftime. We put a couple of nice drives together."
Boller finished the game 22 of 41 for 279 yards with one touchdown pass, one lost fumble and two interceptions with one returned 100 yards by safety Brodney Pool for a touchdown.
It was a decidedly more aggressive game plan in the second half as Baltimore finished with 368 yards of total offense despite a total of four turnovers and six sacks allowed.
"Yes, we definitely took some shots," Boller said. "It’s hard in the first half. We couldn’t get a first down.
"When you get first downs and you get some momentum going, then you can actually open it up and call some plays. But we have to go out there and execute better and not put ourselves in that position."
Boller eclipsed Vinny Testaverde to become the Ravens’ all-time leading passer with 7,154 yards to top Testaverde’s 7,148. Boller also leads Baltimore in career attempts (1,211) and completions (681).
The pass rush pressure seemed to affect Boller’s timing with defensive lineman Robaire Smith recording two sacks and two quarterback hits as he burst past offensive guard Chris Chester.
"We knew he was the type of quarterback that didn’t like pressure in his face," Browns defensive end Orpheus Roye said. "So, we brought a little pressure to get him rattled early. We knew with their backs against the wall they were going to come out with everything."
Boller’s second-half performance gave the Ravens (4-6) some reason to be encouraged going forward as McNair recuperates from a partially dislocated non-throwing shoulder for the next week or two.
"I really couldn’t tell you why," said Ravens coach Brian Billick when asked why Boller improved. "He obviously started to see things better."
TALKING TRASH: Former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown against his old team in his return to Baltimore, punctuating a 25-yard reception by emphatically spiking the football on the Ravens’ sidelines.
"It was stupid, I shouldn’t have done it," said Lewis, who was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. "I was caught up in the moment and I was on their sidelines. It was the perfect spot, the perfect opportunity.
"It’s me. I was very amped up before this game. It was a physical run after the catch. The Ravens said I couldn’t catch the football, so I proved a lot."
Lewis shoved McAlister out of his way, bulling ahead to gain extra yards. Plus, he scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to stake Cleveland to a 10-0 lead in the second quarter.
"It was very emotional, you’re coming into my old stadium against my old team and I knew they were going to be fired up and ready because that’s just their mentality," Lewis said. "So, I kind of had to match their tempo and I knew our team would follow."
Lewis exchanged taunting words with linebackers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott throughout the contest. Lewis got the final word several times by running over defenders, and he impressively hurdled cornerback Derrick Martin on one run.
"There was a lot being said," Lewis said. "That defense is going to keep a high motor, and they’re going to come all game. They play outstanding. They’re going to gang-tackle.
"Ray, he’s always around the ball. I knew he was going to be around every play."
INJURY UPDATE: Defensive end Trevor Pryce suffered a chest injury, and defensive tackle Justin Bannan hurt his ankle. Neither injury is believed to be serious.
Offensive guard Jason Brown suffered a mild concussion when he was decked on a blindside block during Pool’s interception return. He returned to the game.
"This is football, stuff like that is going to happen," Brown said. "I’m not the first guy to ever get hit like that. They have that reel every week, ‘Jacked Up,’ I really wouldn’t be surprised if that hit makes that Top 10 list."
Cornerback Chris McAlister returned after missing three games with a strained knee with no apparent setbacks and held Browns star wide receiver Braylon Edwards scoreless although he did catch eight passes for 85 yards.
"I held up well," McAlister said. "I’m just glad to be back out there."
BRAWLING: Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was outraged by Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas’ low block, punching the rookie in the face while he laid on the ground. He drew a 15-yard personal foul for unnecessary roughness.
"I thought he went after my leg, I saw his helmet going low," Ngata said. "I didn’t know if he came after my leg or not. That’s why I was just like, ‘What are you trying to do?’ It kind of upsets you."
SURPRISED: Browns coach Romeo Crennel was surprised that the Ravens kept kicking to star return specialist Josh Cribbs.
"He’s a tremendous returner," Crennel said. "Everytime he touches it, he’s a danger to get it to midfield or a touchdown. I’m glad they kicked it to him."
Why did the Ravens keep kicking it to Cribbs as he set up so many of the Browns’ crucial scores?
"Well, that wasn’t intentional," kicker Matt Stover said. "It was me just hitting the ball as hard as I possibly could. We have to cover better."
QUOTABLE: Brown on Phil Dawson’s 51-yard, game-tying field goal that was originally ruled no good: "I guess it’s like the in-out rule in basketball. If it goes in and comes back out, it’s good. I don’t know what those odds are, but you’re probably better off winning the lottery than seeing that happen again."
QUICK HITS: Browns quarterback Derek Anderson, the former Ravens quarterback, was upbeat after Cleveland swept the annual series for the first time since 2001. "It’s a big rivalry," he said. "The team initially coming here from Cleveland, and to beat them twice is something special." … The Ravens deactivated McNair, cornerback Samari Rolle (undisclosed illness), safety Gerome Sapp (hamstring), offensive tackle Jared Gaither, tight end Daniel Wilcox (sprained toe), tight end Todd Heap (strained hamstring), wide receiver Demetrius Williams (high-ankle sprain) and linebacker Edgar Jones. … Ray Lewis recorded the 25th interception of his career, returning it 35 yards for a touchdown for his second career regular-season score and his third overall. Lewis was credited with a game-high 16 tackles and one fumble recovery. … Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has registered four sacks in the past five games to lead the team with five for the season. … Wide receiver Devard Darling’s four catches for 107 yards and a touchdown are all career-highs. … Running back Willis McGahee gained 102 yards and scored a touchdown. … Although this marked the 13th time in franchise history that the Ravens had both a 100-yard receiver and a 100-yard rusher, this is only the second time Baltimore has lost when that has occurred.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.