CINCINNATI -- Matt Stover vindicated himself in a troubled season yesterday by kicking a 50-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Ravens past the Cincinnati Bengals, 34-31, at Cinergy Field.
A game between two of the NFL's worst teams may have been the most exciting of the year. It featured a punt return for a touchdown, long passes, a goalshed an 11-play, 37-yard drive led by quarterback Tony Banks that began at the Ravens' 31-yard line with 1: 43 left in the game.
Stover -- who almost lost his job to Joe Nedney earlier this season after having to hold off Scott Bentley in training camp -- had made only one of four previous attempts from 50 yards or more this season. Stover had to endure two straight timeouts, one by the officials, who questioned a 4-yard pass to tight end Aaron Pierce to set up the field goal, and the other by the Bengals, to sweat him.
"I didn't know what the first one was," Stover said. "I knew there was a timeout, but I didn't realize until after it was said they were reviewing the play. When they did the other timeout, you can expect that, but when you are back there ready to kick the field goal, you don't think about that. I've been in the league awhile, and I know how to handle that. You get out of the way, don't let them taunt you and just do what you have to do.
"The conditions out there were incres flying well."
When asked if he felt vindicated, Stover said: "This is all just part of being a kicker. It's a roller coaster. You never get too high, you never get too low. But I'm 31 with a few gray hairs."
It was a nervous time for the Ravens, Bengals and an announced crowd of 43,279. The Ravens (4-6) had taken a 31-14 lead in the third quarter with three unanswered touchdowns. After Tony Banks threw a 73-yard pass over the middle to Billy Davis to the Bengals' 2, running back Errict Rhett ran around left end for the touchdown to put the Ravens ahead 17-14 with 8: 18 left in the third quarter.
On the Ravens' next series, Banks passed 25 yards to Patrick Johnson for a touchdown on a stop-and-go move to the right corner of the end zone, and when cornerback Duane Starks intercepted a Jeff Blake pass and returned it 43 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown, it looked like the Ravens had an insurmountable lead at 31-14 with 4: 38 left in the third quarter.
Maybe the Ravens felt that way, too. After all, they entered the game tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the league's No. 1-ranked defense.
"We got complacent as a team," said Ravens safety Rod Woodson. "When that happens in the NFL, it makes things worse. The next this went ahead by 17, the Bengals answered with a six-play, 60-yard drive that ended with Blake throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to receiver Darnay Scott with 2: 43 left in the third period.
Then came the punt return. Ravens punter Kyle Richardson hit a 56-yarder that returner Craig Yeast fielded at the 14. Two Ravens -- Davis and reserve safety Corey Harris -- blew by Yeast out of control as Yeast made it through a hole around the 25. That left Yeast with Richardson one-on-one around the Bengals' 40. 09 left in the game.
"He got me," said Richardson. "Then, all of a sudden, he [the official] picked it up. Don't get me started about the officiating. I don't even know why there wasn't a call. They were on the Bengals' sideline and never made it over to our side to explain."
Ravens coach Brian Billick, already fined once this year for $10,000 for criticizing the officiating, said only: "I saw the clip. The official on the sideline nearest the play apparently saw the clip. I don't know what happened."
What happened was the Bengals were gaining momentum and taking apart the Ravens' defense. On its final possession of the game, Cincinnati went from its 20 to the Ravens' 1 with 2: 10 left in the game and trailing by three.
On first down, the Bengals ran fullback Clif Groce up the middle for no gain, as he was stopped by defensive ends Fernando Smith and Rob Burnett. On second down, the Bengals ran running back Corey Dillon off right guard. Again, Smith came up with a big play, stopping Dillon for a 1-yard loss. On third down, Blake faked to Dillon and threw to tight end Tony McGee in the back of the end zone. But McGee was hit by safety Rod Woodson and was unable to hold onto the ball and get a second foot down in bounds. The Bengals had to settle for a 19-yard field goal by Doug Pelfrey to tie the score with 1: 50 remaining.
"I knew we had to stop them," Smith said. "I just kept saying, `Let's hold them for one more play, one more play.' When I saw McGee hold that ball, my heart stopped beating for a minute and then it was back to normal."
This could have been a devastating loss for the Ravens. The Bengals carved up their defense for 348 yards, 246 passing. Instead, the Ravens may have learned a lesson about fooling around even with the worst team in the NFL.