Bengals give Ravens lots to chew over

Regaining bite, Cincinnati transforms Sunday into pivotal divisional contest

Billick: `That's as good as it gets'

Victor between 7-5 teams gains decisive playoff edge

December 02, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Ray Lewis can keep his Super Bowl ring tucked away. All the incentive needed this week comes in the form of a golden opportunity.

The most important game of the Ravens' season arrives Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium, where the stakes will be as high as the emotions. In a battle between co-leaders of the AFC North, the Ravens will be playing for first place outright, retribution and an inside track in the playoff race.

"That's as good as it gets," Billick said. "As a coach, you don't have to worry about focus, energy and passion. They know what's in front of them, and they're excited about it. It's going to be a great week."

What's in front of them is their postseason future.

If the Ravens (7-5) lose, it would give Cincinnati (7-5) the equivalent of a two-game lead with three to go because a season sweep would make the Bengals division champions if both teams finished with the same record.

A win would give the Ravens a one-game lead - a lead magnified by the Ravens' much softer schedule, in comparison to the Bengals', the rest of the way.

The Ravens remained tied for the division lead after their 44-6 win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers, which came a few days after Lewis flashed his Super Bowl ring during a motivational speech to his teammates.

The Ravens need no such reminders heading into the final quarter of the season.

"I think it's going to be the game that determines who goes to the playoffs," tight end Todd Heap said. "That's how we've got to look at it."

How the Ravens have looked at Cincinnati has changed, too.

The Bengals were often referred to as "the Bungles" after 12 straight seasons without a winning record. A 1-4 start to this season only perpetuated that image, which only began to change with a 34-26 victory over the Ravens six weeks ago. That started a run in which Cincinnati has won six of seven games.

"Going into the first game, our mind-set was: `It's going to be the same old Bengals,'" linebacker Peter Boulware said. "Now, our mind-set is: `This is a great football team.' It's not a team that you can beat by not doing anything. You have to go in there and be prepared, focused. Hopefully, if we do that, we can come out on top."

Before this season, playing the Bengals for the division lead in December would have brought more laughter than focus.

"At the beginning of the year, everybody would have said, `The Bengals?'" eight-year veteran offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "People were looking toward the Cleveland and the Pittsburgh game. It's funny how it works out."

How the Ravens and Bengals handle the emotions of this week could be a pivotal factor because this is new territory for most of the players involved.

The Ravens have only 13 players remaining from their Super Bowl team in the 2000 season, and Cincinnati hasn't played a meaningful December game since 1990.

"There's going to be a lot of stress put on this game," Heap said. "I think we, as a team, have always been able to handle that. ... We can't worry about what everybody is building it up to be."

The story lines have already begun building.

Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna is being trumpeted as a Most Valuable Player candidate. The Ravens' defense is drawing comparisons to their championship past. Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis is already downplaying his return to Baltimore, where he was the coordinator for the Ravens' record-setting defense.

This could mark the turning point in a series once considered more of a mockery than a rivalry. The Ravens have won nine of the past 11 meetings with Cincinnati.

"Rivalries are built out of when someone wins or loses, it costs you something and it's important," Billick said. "That's not necessarily been the case with Baltimore-Cincinnati."

But the Ravens believe they are battling more than the Bengals, taking an "us against the world" mentality.

"Marvin has done a phenomenal job and everybody in the country is excited that Cincinnati has a team that has this viability," Billick said. "We can't let that distract us. If we're fortunate to win, we're just going to be those bad Baltimore bullies again that are killing this great national story."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) vs. Ravens (7-5)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3 1/2

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