No longer a laughingstock, Bengals pose serious threat

December 04, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

NO ONE THOUGHT a couple of months ago that the Ravens' home game tomorrow against the Cincinnati Bengals would be so pivotal, but fans around town are holding their collective breath.

In the past, this has been a gimmie game, and it seemed headed that way again after the first meeting, a 23-9 Ravens victory. But not anymore. Admit it. There is slight concern, a little knot of anxiety in the stomach.

Of the Ravens' five remaining games, this one is the most intriguing because it involves two teams striving to play at a consistent level. As a Ravens fan, you feel safe about the two remaining home games against the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins.

There's no way Giants rookie quarterback Eli Manning is going to beat the Ravens, and the Dolphins will have the U-Hauls gassed and ready to go after the first quarter of the season finale on Jan. 2. The Ravens have Indianapolis and Pittsburgh on the road back to back, and the Ravens either bring their A-game or get embarrassed.

But at 5-6, Cincinnati is hanging around, improving and scary.

"The Bengals will come in here with a lot of confidence. They're on a little bit of a roll," said Ravens head coach Brian Billick. "They're very athletic on defense and play with a lot of energy.

"It's always tough to win in your division and especially tough to beat the same team twice. You know each other so well."

Billick and Marvin Lewis, the Bengals head coach, don't need any introductions. Billick kept Lewis around as defensive coordinator when Lewis was swept out with the Ted Marchibroda regime following the 1998 season. Lewis returned the favor by designing one of the best defenses in league history as the Ravens won the 2000 championship.

Immediately after last season when the Bengals finished 8-8 and barely missed the playoffs in their first season under Lewis, an exhausted Lewis wanted to relax, so he flew back to Baltimore and met with Billick and general manager Ozzie Newsome at the team's training facility in Owings Mills.

They have that kind of relationship, one that will last forever. But all three are extremely competitive, and Lewis would like nothing better than to beat his old team.

Yes, it's personal.

Lewis has become the X-factor because he still knows a lot of the Ravens up close and extremely personal. He knows that safety Ed Reed still occasionally gambles and gets caught out of position on long passes. He knows that cornerback Chris McAlister still might be a sucker for double moves, or that counters work against the Ravens' rushing defense because they're so fast and aggressive.

He's seen the Ravens' offense, or lack of one, over the years, and you can bet he'll steal a couple of calls or hand signals tomorrow.

And if that's not enough of a concern, the Ravens have to deal with the fact that the Bengals have won three of their past four, and put up 58 points against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

Of course, that's Cleveland, but the Ravens only managed 30 points against the Browns in two games this season.

"Carson [Palmer] almost has a full season now, and it shows," said Billick of the Bengals quarterback. "And there's no doubt about the weapons he has on offense."

Bingo. That's another problem. The Bengals can score points, the Ravens can't. Palmer, in his second season, is unpredictable. He can throw four interceptions one week, and four touchdowns the next. He nearly pulled that off in one game on Sunday, throwing four touchdowns and three interceptions against Cleveland.

If he gets hot against the Ravens ...

"I know Palmer is a great quarterback after playing him already," said Reed. "Knowing that he can make any throw on the field, you just need to be in the right position all the time."

Alright, Ed, let's not get too gushy with the "great" compliment, but you get the picture. The Bengals have a big play receiver in Chad Johnson, and the complementary type on the other side in T.J. Houshmandzadeh. They can grind it out with running back Rudi Johnson, who has surprising outside speed for a big runner.

The Bengals' major weakness is on defense. They're ranked No. 23 overall, No. 30 against the run. In years past, if you couldn't stop the run, you couldn't stop the Ravens. But it's different this season.

The Ravens won't have running back Jamal Lewis (ankle injury) and right offensive tackle Orlando Brown (knee). The Ravens' offensive line has gone through more changes than line partners in a country square dance.

Tight end Todd Heap (ankle) will be rusty after missing the past nine games, and no one knows how Boy Quarterback (Kyle Boller) will play from half to half, or even quarter to quarter.

Regardless of what happens tomorrow, the Ravens should still make the playoffs. One of the teams on the bubble, the New York Jets, has an incredibly tough schedule that includes Houston, Seattle and New England at home, and Pittsburgh and St. Louis on the road.

In the past, there was always confidence about the Ravens beating the Bengals. Actually, it used to be a laugher. The Ravens still have more overall talent than the Bengals, but you can't escape the anxiety.

The Bengals aren't what they used to be, and neither are the Ravens.

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