Familiar foes play two strong hands

Under M. Lewis, Bengals tough on road, but home has been big Ravens edge

Lead in AFC North is at stake

Earlier loss in Cincinnati has Ravens motivated

Baxter: `We want revenge'


December 07, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Today's divisional clash between the Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals represents the pivotal game of the teams' seasons and their promising new eras.

Battle lines will be drawn at M&T Bank Stadium, where the real territory at stake is sole possession of first place in the AFC North.

By nightfall, either the Ravens will add another piece to their up-and-coming rebuilding project or the Bengals will push further from their dismal past.

A win by the Ravens (7-5) would put a once salary-cap ravaged team in line for its first division title, so soft is the remaining schedule. A win by the Bengals (7-5) would nearly clinch the division by virtue of a season sweep of the Ravens, and would move them closer to their first postseason berth in 13 years.

"This is the game everybody has been waiting on," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. "They know what comes when they come to play us, especially when they come to Baltimore. It is not talking trash. The Bengals don't play well when they come see the Ravens at home. So come see us again at home, we are playing [ticked] off now."

Cincinnati has never won at the Ravens' downtown stadium, losing all five trips, including three by shutout. In looking to extend the Bengals' misery, the Ravens are seeking their fifth consecutive home victory, which would set a team record.

"You are not going to come in here and disrespect us," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "You aren't going to come into our house and push us around. Whenever you play us, you are going to get beat up, period."

But these aren't the Bungles. Under rookie head coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals have earned their stripes on the road, winning in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and San Diego.

Lewis, the Ravens' defensive coordinator from 1996 to 2001, could knock down another wall with a triumphant homecoming. Cincinnati has lost 39 games in a row on the road to teams with winning records, a streak that dates to December 1990.

In a bid to end that skid, Lewis is going to follow the road rules established by Ravens coach Brian Billick.

"I think you have to narrow your focus down and realize that once this game starts, it's just us and them," Marvin Lewis said. "Brian did such a great job with us and I was able to mirror it. If you provide atmosphere and the same things you do both places, the only thing left to deal with is the crowd noise."

Actually, he will have to deal with a familiar face.

Both he and Ray Lewis joined the Ravens in the franchise's first year, building the defense from last in the NFL in 1996 to a record-setting one in 2000. Marvin Lewis has a photo of Ray Lewis sitting in his office.

"Ray and I grew up together," Marvin Lewis said. "How he worked and what a leader he was for me will never change."

No team has schemed better against Ray Lewis this season than the Bengals.

They attacked up the middle and right at Lewis, assigning one player to specifically track and block the All-Pro on every play. As a result, Lewis was held to a season-low five tackles.

This time, it may take more Bengals to slow Lewis. In the Ravens' two-game winning streak, he has collected 31 tackles, a touchdown on an interception return and a recovery of his own forced fumble.

If the Ravens want to stop one of the most balanced offenses in the league (10th in passing and 12th in rushing), they need a disruptive effort out of their leader.

"Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games," Ray Lewis said. "That's what you train all offseason for is that one moment to get into a big game. You get into it, you test all what you've trained for and see if it pays off. I think all the great ones just chase after it and thrive on it."

The focus for the Ravens is moving ahead of the Bengals in the standings and settling a score. When the teams met seven weeks ago in Cincinnati, the Ravens believe they gave away that game.

Two fumbles, an interception and an inexplicable bounce off safety Ed Reed's shoulder led to 24 points in a 34-26 loss. As Cincinnati quarterback Jon Kitna told Ray Lewis he was going to take a knee at the end, the Pro Bowl linebacker responded, "Just remember. You guys gotta come to Baltimore."

"Don't ask for four turnovers or for us to drop interceptions next time you throw," Lewis said last week. "Hopefully we won't. I promise you we won't."

Said Baxter: "We want revenge. We can't wait."

At that point of the season, few predicted these teams would be in the playoff hunt.

But the Ravens staged their biggest comeback ever one week (44-41 overtime win over Seattle) and their biggest rout the next (44-6 victory over San Francisco). In equally dramatic fashion, the Bengals upset then-undefeated Kansas City three weeks ago, and escaped with a last-minute comeback last week in Pittsburgh.

Even fewer predicted Kitna and Anthony Wright would be the teams' quarterbacks in the final month of the regular season.

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