Ravens rout Cincinnati, 31-13, have title within their grasp

J. Lewis gains 180 yards

Bengals have 5 turnovers

Grabbing the Division Lead

December 08, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

After a month that pushed them to the brink of unraveling, the Ravens seized control of their season, their division and their playoff destiny yesterday.

A 31-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals before a raucous home crowd of 69,468 spoke volumes about the Ravens.

In routing their chief threat in the AFC North division, the Ravens continued to march past a troubling November, when they lost starting quarterback Kyle Boller, gave away back-to-back games on the road and faced a challenge to team unity.

Now, on the strength of Jamal Lewis' pulverizing running and Ray Lewis' punishing defense, the Ravens have banded together to line themselves up for this city's first NFL division title since 1977, when the Colts captured the AFC East.

By raising their record to 8-5, the Ravens took sole possession of the AFC North lead, staking themselves to a one-game lead over the Bengals with three weeks left in the regular season.

The Ravens' third-straight victory - and team-record fifth in a row at home - was the result of a dominating tandem: Jamal Lewis' 180 yards rushing and five forced turnovers.

"This is a statement game for us," said linebacker Ray Lewis. "I think we're peaking at the right time."

If this was their statement game, it was eloquent.

If this was a glimpse of the future, it seemed to be defined by a unified spirit.

In two losses during November, the offense had struggled to capitalize on opportunities presented by a strong defense. Yesterday, the Ravens' defense set up favorable field position with turnovers, and the offense converted the opportunities into touchdowns.

With the Ravens holding a 17-13 lead midway through the third quarter, rookie pass-rush specialist Terrell Suggs stripped Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna deep in Cincinnati territory and grabbed the loose ball as well as the momentum.

The Ravens needed two Jamal Lewis runs - 14 and 3 yards - to punch the ball into the end zone.

The knockout punch was delivered early in the fourth quarter with a similar combination.

Pressured by Peter Boulware and Marques Douglas, Kitna floated a pass that sailed over his receiver to Ravens safety Will Demps. His 54-yard interception return put the Ravens at the Bengals' 21-yard line.

Again, Jamal Lewis reached the end zone on two carries. Lewis' team-record third touchdown lifted the Ravens to a 31-13 lead 3:12 into the fourth quarter.

"When Jamal is running the football like that and our offense is capitalizing off our turnovers, we're hard to beat," Ray Lewis said. "We play old-school football. Having a hard-nosed defense and a strong running game, that's what we live for in the playoffs."

Teamwork has solidified the Ravens as they position themselves for a playoff run after a one-year absence. Of the 75 points scored by the Ravens the past two weeks, 45 have come off turnovers.

With the offense and defense clicking, the Ravens outgained the Bengals, 353-268, and dominated time of possession, 32:56 to 27:04.

How the offense and defense have fed off each other is not lost on the players.

"You can have all the talent in the world, but if you have no chemistry, you won't win anything," said Ravens receiver Travis Taylor. "One thing about this team is it's close-knit. It's helped us tremendously."

These Ravens hardly resemble those that flopped in losses at St. Louis and Miami last month.

Since then, the Ravens have staged their biggest comeback ever one week (in a 44-41, overtime win over Seattle) and their biggest rout the next (in a 44-6 victory over San Francisco).

Yesterday represented another milestone, as the Ravens paved the way to the 8-year-old franchise's first division title. Their last three regular-season opponents have losing records.

In making that run for glory, they won't forget the bumps encountered along the way.

"We call ourselves a family," said cornerback Gary Baxter. "Anytime you're family, you're going to have some problems. The good teams come together. The bad teams argue and fall apart. We stayed together and we made it through the tough times."

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