Ugly victory still looks pretty good

November 22, 1999|By John Eisenberg

CINCINNATI -- The Ravens needed a 50-yard field goal as time expired to beat the worst team in the NFL yesterday. That tells you how well they played.

"Offense, defense, special teams -- none of our three phases played well," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said after the 34-31 win over the Bengals.

But although their bungling was so plentiful that at times it almost seemed the Ravens were playing with a death wish, you have to go light on them today.

Instead of finding a way to lose at the end, as they so often do, they found a way to win this time. All three of their units came through when it mattered.

The defense rose up and limited the Bengals to a game-tying field goal after the Bengals had driven to within 1 yard of a touchdown that would have given them the lead with 110 seconds to play.

Then quarterback Tony Banks moved the offense 37 yards in 11 tense plays to put kicker Matt Stover in position to try the game-winner.

The kick? A killer. "I knew it was good as soon as I hit it," Stover said.

"Everyone came through at the end, all the parts of the team," Banks said. "In that sense, it was just the kind of win we needed, a step in the right direction coming off so many three-point losses."

True, maybe all they did was stumble across a team even more hooked on losing than they are; the 1-10 Bengals blew a two-touchdown lead, committed 15 penalties, lost three turnovers and made the key, late mistakes the Ravens usually make. Tight end Tony McGee dropped a pass in the end zone on the final drive, and cornerback Rodney Heath dropped an easy interception just moments before Stover's kick.

Trust us, this was a game the Ravens easily could have lost -- and usually do.

"We certainly didn't play well enough to win them all," Woodson said, "but when you make plays at the end like we did, good things can come out of it."

Granted, it never should have come down to that against a team whose only win this season is a last-second job against the expansion Browns. The Bengals had lost 10 home games in a row before yesterday, a streak encompassing more than a year. They hadn't led at any time in any game for six weeks.

But the accommodating Ravens gave them a hand, sleeping through the first quarter and not awakening until the Bengals were up 14-0, stunning the dismally small home crowd.

Given how seldom the Ravens had scored this season, it appeared the Bengals had already done enough to win.

But the Ravens woke up, started moving the ball and crept to within four points by halftime, then appeared to blow the game open with a 21-point, third-quarter flurry in which exhumed receivers Patrick Johnson and Billy Davis made huge plays.

After watching Johnson, Davis and Greg DeLong, of all people, carried the pass-catching load, Ravens coach Brian Billick admitted it was nice to see an open wide receiver down the field -- a rare sight this season.

But just when the game seemed locked up, the Ravens let up and let the Bengals back into it.

"I think we got a little complacent as a team," Woodson said. "I know as a defense we did. You just can't let that happen."

The Bengals drove to a touchdown, then pulled to within three points on a long punt return for a touchdown that should have been called back, but wasn't. (An official flagged a Bengal for an illegal block that the whole stadium saw, but the flag was overruled for some reason.)

When the Bengals got the ball back again and drove to the 1-yard-line, a devastating loss for the Ravens was shaping up. How could they blow a 17-point lead to the NFL's worst team?

Come to think of it, we can still ask that question, even though they pulled the game out.

But the defense held, giving Banks a tie to work with as he set out to try to move into position for a game-winning score. Give the quarterback credit. He was chased, tackled and pummeled all afternoon, sacked seven times in all. His right ankle, injured last week in Jacksonville, was extremely sore.

"Tony was hurting," Woodson said. "But that's what you have to do in this league. You have to be a warrior. Tony was a warrior out there today."

He completed six passes on the final drive, including a key 4-yarder to Aaron Pierce that put the ball within Stover's range after a motion penalty had moved the offense back. With help from Heath, who dropped the interception, Banks got the job done.

"The cheeseburger on the [plane] ride home is going to taste great," Banks said.

That's what winning does, no matter how ugly it gets.

"This is going to be an ugly film to watch tomorrow," Woodson said. "[But] I'd rather play like this and win instead of holding a team to 130 yards of offense and lose. We're out here to win. And that's what we did."

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