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INJURIES PUT AFC CENTRAL FAVORITES IN REVERSE

Injuries have helped turn the AFC Central into the most upside-down division in the NFL this year.

Preseason favorites Baltimore and Tennessee find themselves looking up at Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

In Tennessee the problem is the defensive secondary. In Baltimore, the problem is offensive line and running back.

Tennessee ranked No. 1 in the NFL in pass defense last season. This year, the Titans are 30th against the pass. They stand 2-3 and are in deep trouble if they lose to the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Monday night.

For the better part of six of the last seven seasons, the Titans paired Blaine Bishop and Marcus Robertson at safety. Robertson had lost a step or two and was expensive. So Tennessee let him go as a salary-cap cut because it liked his backup, Bobby Myers.

Then Myers suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener. Nickel cornerback Dainon Sidney also was lost for the year to a knee injury in the opener. That left the Titans looking to players like undrafted rookie Joe Walker, DeRon Jenkins and rookie Andre Dyson to pick up the slack.

They even moved four-time Pro Bowler Bishop from strong safety to free safety to try to clean things up -- the Buccaneers game two weeks ago was his first start there. But Bishop didn't play in Detroit last week because of a foot injury and isn't expected to play Monday.

Pro Bowl cornerback Samari Rolle has also missed the last two games with a bruised spinal cord.

As a result the Lions threw for 322 yards last weekend, the latest in a series of defensive lapses.

Stripped of their ability to play a lot of man-to-man coverages, the Titans have been unable to take advantage of their pass-rush potential. They were second in sacks last year but are 25th this year.

Baltimore's problems aren't quite as severe because the Ravens' defense still is playing great and should keep the team in every game.

But the Ravens ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing last year behind rookie Jamal Lewis, who is out for the season with a knee injury.

This year the Ravens are 11th in rushing and only 21st in yards per attempt.

The Ravens thought they had bookend tackles when they signed free agent Leon Searcy to go with stud left tackle Jonathan Ogden. Searcy was lost for the season with a torn triceps tendon.

The Ravens signed veteran tackle Erik Williams, the former Cowboys star, to replace Searcy. But Williams has been unable to win the job outright. He's only splitting time with NFL Europe product Sammy Williams, and both have struggled. The Ravens also couldn't afford to keep center Jeff Mitchell in free agency. Mike Flynn moved from guard to center, but hasn't done as well as Mitchell.

Last year the Ravens were second in time of possession. This year they're 14th.

RB deal nixed again

At Tuesday's trade deadline, the Ravens were trying to acquire running back Olandis Gary from Denver. But the Broncos nixed the idea after getting an unfavorable update on Terrell Davis' health.

Back on draft day, the Ravens reportedly agreed to a trade a second-round pick to Denver for RB Mike Anderson, but the Broncos backed off at the last moment. The Gary deal was close to being consummated, according to a Ravens source. The Ravens would have sent Lional Dalton, a backup DT, and a second-round pick for Gary and a fourth-rounder.

Rams on fast track

Don Shula, Nick Buoniconti and the rest of the '72 Dolphins might want to start sweating if St. Louis gets past New Orleans today and moves to 7-0. The Rams have a favorable schedule the next month (Carolina, New England, Tampa Bay and Atlanta) and could threaten to go undefeated.

Eight of the Rams' final 10 games are indoors.

Rams QB Kurt Warner is 20-1 in regular-season starts indoors with a passer rating of 114.6. Warner is 7-5 for his career outdoors.

The only two outdoor games left for the Rams are Nov. 18 at New England and Dec. 23 at Carolina.

Quotebook

Steelers safety Lee Flowers on Tampa Bay: "I'm tired of Tampa Bay. They talk so much and they go to the Pro Bowl because they talk. They ain't nothing but paper champions. That's all they are and that's all they're ever going to be."

Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil on criticism of Indy coach Jim Mora: "Some people don't know what they don't know, and they never will."

And another Vermeilism (by way of George Allen): "Instant gratification, in the NFL, is not quick enough."

Miami guard Mark Dixon, the only Dolphin player with his own radio show, on the roller-coaster emotions of fans: "People get so despondent over what we are and what we're not. The same guy who calls in last week saying we're a Super Bowl team will call in this week and want us all cut. When I'm driving home, I have to put all that into perspective and realize even if this guy is trashing me or my teammates, this is the same guy that next week if I see in the street will be nice to me and act like I'm a great player."

Gruden sticks to rock

Raiders coach Jon Gruden returns to Philadelphia today, where he spent three years as an offensive coordinator and where he learned not to listen to sports radio.

After a 14-0 playoff loss to the 49ers in which the Eagles turned it over twice in the red zone, Gruden was driving home and turned on the radio. "This guy called in and said, 'If Jon Gruden had an IQ one point lower, he'd be a plant.'

"Ever since then, I've been listening to rock 'n' roll stations."

Onside kicks

The injury bug is starting to decimate Carolina. The career of running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka could be in jeopardy after he suffered a shattered right foot in last week's 17-14 loss at Washington. The Panthers also lost two other starters -- linebacker Hannibal Navies and right guard Kevin Donnalley -- for the season last week. . . . The Rams suspected the Jets of watering down the Meadowlands turf the night before the game to make the footing bad.

At the Eagles-Giants game Monday, Giants PR director Pat Hanlon received the Pete Rozelle Award for outstanding media relations in the 2000 season, and Giants QB Kerry Collins received the George Halas Award for the player who persevered through difficult times in 2000. Both were given by the Pro Football Writers of America.

Of 13 games last weekend, underdogs won 11 outright. . . . Michael Strahan has 10.5 sacks the last four games. Before Monday, the Giants had won an NFL-best 31 consecutive games in which they led after three periods. . . . New Orleans' Ricky Williams is accounting for 41.9 percent of his team's offense, the highest percentage in the NFL. The Jets' Curtis Martin is second at 39.5 percent. . . . Defensive end David Bowens, cut by the Bills in preseason after being acquired in the trade with Bobby Collins, was signed by Miami this week. Miami has 11 sacks the first five games and would like to bolster the pass rush. . . . Doubts have been raised in Indy about the Colts' use of the muddle-huddle in the wake of their losses to New England. Peyton Manning can adjust on the fly, but it's not so easy to get everyone else on the advanced-calculus page the star quarterback is on.

The Raiders have played 39 consecutive regular-season games without a double-digit loss, a streak that no other team in the league can approach. Tampa Bay is second with 14, Philadelphia next with 12. The last time the Raiders lost big was on Dec. 13, 1998, a 44-21 loss at Buffalo.

Jerry Jones' drafting continues to sabotage the Cowboys. Dallas had to cut starting cornerback Kareem Larrimore (a fourth-round pick in 2000) and starting linebacker Darren Hambrick (a fifth-rounder in '98) for personal reasons. Hambrick was miffed at his contract. Larrimore, who was red-flagged before the draft for character questions, had been fined 11 times and suspended once the past year and a half.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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