OWINGS MILLS — Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the Baltimore Ravens are convinced that the Cleveland Browns are going to give them a serious challenge today at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens didn’t manufacture their run to the AFC championship game a year ago through overconfidence.
A large portion of that pathway was built through asserting their superiority over inferior teams, including six wins with no defeats against teams with losing records.
So, the undefeated Ravens (2-0) aren’t buying into being installed as a nearly two-touchdown favorite over a winless Browns (0-2) team with the worst statistical offense in the league and a struggling quarterback in Brady Quinn.
"When you’ve got your back up against the wall, that’s when people come out fighting," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "They ‘ve got a lot of talent, they’ve been in both games they lost. We’re going to have a fight on our hands."
Ever since the Ravens touched down in Baltimore following their narrow 31-26 victory over the Chargers in San Diego, there’s been a theme to this week of preparation.
Don’t count out the Browns, or the power of a team looking to avoid a deep, dark 0-3 hole at the bottom of the AFC North.
"I know Cleveland is going to be a desperate team," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Going down 0-3 in our division is not a good thing. That’s why I know they’re going to come out and give us their best game."
The Ravens are traditionally dominant at home in the division, going 13-5 against AFC North opponents since 2003. And the Browns have lost all but two of their last 15 divisional road games over the past five years.
The Ravens are 7-3 at home against Cleveland all-time.
"You look at them and you wouldn’t think they would be 0-2," nose guard Kelly Gregg said. "Hopefully, we can make them 0-3."
Plus, Browns coach Eric Mangini may be alienating his team with a harsh set of rules. That includes fining players $1,701 for not paying for a $3 bottle of water in their hotel room and an identical amount for a $6 movie.
There have been several rumblings of unhappiness from players throughout a rocky offseason as Mangini has imposed his iron-fisted authority.
And the Browns have been folding in the second half this season, being outscored 41-7 after halftime. The halftime speeches must not be too inspirational.
While the Browns have some talented players in wide receiver Braylon Edwards, left tackle Joe Thomas, disruptive nose guard Shaun "Big Baby" Rogers, outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley and returner Joshua Cribbs, they’re only scoring 13 points per game to rank 30th in the league.
They rank 25th in total defense as they’re allowing 379.5 yards per contest. And Quinn has been sacked nine times and is averaging only 5.5 yards per passing attempt.
"The Browns are capable of being an elite team," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They haven’t been able to put it together yet. I think they have every intention of putting it together on Sunday. It’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen, just like it’s their job to make sure that they play as well as they can play.
"We know that we’re going to get the very best Browns on Sunday. That’s what we expect, that’s what we anticipate. We ‘ve got to make sure they get the very best Ravens. That’s really all you can. I think our guys believe that and understand that. We’ll have to prove it on Sunday."
The Browns’ run defense has been completely ineffective, allowing 205.5 yards per game.
That could prove to be problematic against Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain, the architects of a running game that ranks fourth in the league with 164 yards on the ground per game.
Last year, Baltimore ran the football 85 times for 344 yards against the Browns.
Former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis is out due to a hamstring injury and will be replaced by Jerome Harrison and rookie James Davis.
And Baltimore is allowing just 41 rushing yards per game and 2.2 yards per carry to rank first overall in run defense, not allowing a 100-yard rusher in 37 consecutive games.
“When you play an opponent like Baltimore, the margin for error is very small," Mangini said. "They can exploit you defensively, they can exploit you offensively."
The Ravens are ranked atop several power polls this week.
Unlike college football, though, those polls don’t matter at all in the NFL.
"We don’t care, we don’t particularly want that," Harbaugh said. "That’s not a place we’re comfortable with."
The Ravens are intent on going 3-0 for the second time in franchise history, not on focusing on former NFL coach Steve Mariucci labeling them the team to beat in the AFC.
"It doesn’t matter where you are," Lewis said. "Bottom line, just come out and play hard-nosed football and just try to keep getting wins."
Without question, the bandwagon is gaining a lot of passengers these days.
"That’s the NFL," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "One week you’re winning and everyone loves you. The next week you’re losing and everyone hates you.
“People’s opinion changes like the wind. So, you can’t take any stake in it. What you have to do as a player is just keep on playing regardless of if they have you ranked high or low."
From a strategic standpoint, the Ravens need this game as much as any other. Especially since it’s a division game.
Looking past the Browns and focusing on next week’s game against the New England Patriots wouldn’t be advisable.
"A division game is critical," Harbaugh said. "It counts for a game-plus because that gives you a tiebreaker advantage in the division. It puts a loss on a divisional opponent, and the first thing you play for is the divisional championship.
"We know what kind of talent they have. We know what’s at stake for them. They’re going to be coming in here and doing everything possible to win this game."
NOTES: The Ravens downgraded starting offensive tackle Jared Gaither from probable to questionable due to an illness. Gaither didn’t feel well when he arrived at the Ravens’ training complex Saturday for practice. If Gaither can’t go, then rookie Michael Oher would start at left tackle and the Ravens might have Marshal Yanda start at his old right tackle spot. Gaither said Friday that he felt better and is going to play. … The Browns ruled out kicker Phil Dawson due to a right calf injury and signed Billy Cundiff to kick in his place. … The Browns cut former Ravens running back Cedric Peerman to create a spot for Cundiff. … The Browns also ruled out offensive linemen Floyd Womack and Rex Hadnot. … Johnson is a potential game-time decision due to a shoulder injury.