Big win finishes with scared whimper, not a bang

November 06, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

After the game, it was quiet. Too quiet.

The sound the record crowd made at the final gun at M&T Bank Stadium yesterday was nothing like the roar that normally greets a 6-2 team with a two-game lead in its division, after a grinding win over a bitter rival. The sound was more like a massive exhale, then a puzzled murmur as they exited.

Some stranglehold.

Any win over the Cincinnati Bengals, especially one that creates this big a gap in the standings midway through the season, shouldn't set off so many alarms. But if this game proved anything, it's that the Ravens, once again, are going to sweat this out to the bitter end. Each game, the AFC North, the playoffs, everything.

Nothing will ever be easy for them, will it?

Let's begin at the end - or the final 18 seconds, when the Ravens' defense found itself back on the field, standing between Carson Palmer and the goal line with 72 yards to defend that it didn't think it would have to.

Not that the defense sounded worried about it, despite the history between them, Palmer and fourth-quarter comebacks in this stadium; or the Bengals' quick-strike ability; or the 71-yard bomb early in the final quarter that had turned the one-time rout into a nail-biter.

Or the fact that Ed Reed and, more seriously, Ray Lewis, had been playing in pain since that strike to Chris Henry, after a fumble that wasn't, a recovery and return that nearly knocked them both out and two replay challenges.

Still, with less than two minutes left, a six-point lead, the ball at the Bengals' 15, Cincinnati down to one timeout and a chip-shot field goal for a two-score game there for the taking ... It was a less-than-ideal scenario, fitting for an imperfect game.

"I'm not going to lie - I had cut my thumb tape off," linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "I looked up and saw we had to go back, and I thought, `How?' But no big deal, it was one play."

Talk among yourselves about whether you liked Brian Billick's answer about the odds of getting a kick blocked and run back and all that. And whether those odds are longer than Palmer's having one or two shots at making a back-breaking play. Of course, the defense had just shut them down moments before and had made T.J. Houshmandzadeh stupidly lose his cool.

Billick had good reason to bet on his defense. Whether those reasons were better than the reasons for betting on Matt Stover from point-blank range (when he hadn't missed a field goal in 53 weeks, has seen two get blocked since the turn of the century and had made four already in the game) - that's harder to figure out. Now, he was about to cash in or get busted.

"That's so harsh. That's such a scary thing," defensive end Trevor Pryce said about trying to stop the Bengals in that situation. "You never know what could happen. Lightning could strike - tip-tip, hook-and-lateral."

But as Thomas said, it was over on one play, Chris McAlister's interception. Time to get out of there before something else happens.

The Ravens spent far more time sidestepping disaster than a team up 17-0 in the second quarter at home should have. They looked so good so often and so vulnerable at other times. They also made the Bengals look bad lots of times - soft on defense and fragile mentally (Houshmandzadeh's helmet-throwing tantrum, Chad Johnson's profanity-laced post-game tirade).

Plus, the Ravens continue to get every break a team could pray for. They lead the league in points off ricochets, now that Stover had a field goal of that type. And the next time any cornerback breaks up a pass the way Ronnie Prude broke up the last one to Houshmandzadeh, don't be surprised if a flag flies.

Every time the Bengals closed the gap, especially in the fourth quarter, the Ravens did just enough to widen it again, by any means necessary, including Steve McNair's critical (and painful) 10-yard run on the drive right after Cincinnati got within 23-17.

"And I got three stitches in my chin," McNair said with a laugh.

Yet there were the seeds of doubt sown all over.

The Bengals did break off some big plays and made the most of their limited chances. The Ravens' offense did trip over its own feet, literally on one occasion. Dexter Jackson did drop one sure interception in the fourth quarter, and Derrick Mason broke up another.

And Reed and Lewis did have to shake off their collision. Considering that Fred Sanford imitation he was doing afterward, it's a miracle that Lewis finished the game.

"When he and Ed went down," said cornerback Samari Rolle, "you thought, `Man, I hope this isn't like last year." '

Of course, the punch line is that it is like last year and the year before and the year before, 17-0 leads and two-game margins notwithstanding.

"You always sweat them out until the end," Billick said.

Always.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog.

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