Following Ravens' formula, Bengals becoming annual threat in AFC North

Cincinnati head coach, Ex-Ravens coordinator Marvin Lewis taking approach similar to Ozzie Newsome's

  • Cincinnati's Carlos Dunlap celebrates with the Paul Brown Stadium crowd after intercepting a pass from Tyrod Taylor and running it back for a touchdown in a 23-17 win last season over the Ravens.
Cincinnati's Carlos Dunlap celebrates with the Paul… (Baltimore Sun )
November 10, 2013|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

Marvin Lewis was the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 1996 when the franchise set its foundation with the drafting of offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

Year after year, he watched Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff add to the team's nucleus through the NFL draft, finding impact players early and overlooked talent late, and complimenting the draft class with high upside undrafted free agents.

"My experience in Baltimore allowed me to go look at the players and make sure that the guys met the standard I thought was important, which mainly, is to have a high motor and have the ability to bend their knees and make football plays," Lewis said. "I think everybody there did a good job of bringing all the thoughts and ideas together, and obviously, making great decisions."

Lewis has been the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals for 11 seasons, a period that has seen the formerly downtrodden franchise emerge as perennial playoff contenders, thanks to the same team-building blueprint that has worked so well for the Ravens.

The combination of smart draft picks and savvy roster decisions has the Bengals (6-3) in first place in the AFC North, looking down at the Ravens (3-5) and Pittsburgh Steelers (2-6), the two teams that have dominated the division for much of the last decade. On Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Bengals have a chance to deal another blow to the Ravens' sagging playoff hopes and solidify their standing as the elite team in the division.

"The Ravens have been one of the best teams in this division for a while," Bengals third-year quarterback Andy Dalton said. "Any time you can go against teams like they've had, and see where you're at, and see what kind of team that you've got, it is a good measuring stick just to see where we're at as a team. This is a big game for us, so we've got to come out and play our best."

For the Ravens, a loss would give them four straight defeats for the first time since 2007, the final year of Brian Billick's tenure as coach, and put a sixth-straight playoff berth on life support. It would also leave them 3 1/2 games behind the Bengals with seven games to play, and all but end any realistic shot at a third straight AFC North title.

The Ravens have long considered the Bengals worthy adversaries in the AFC North, though they've finished lower than Cincinnati in the division standings just three times since 2002. With the way this season has shaken out, it's fair to question whether the balance of power in the division has shifted for the foreseeable future.

"The Bengals have been extremely talented ever since we've been here," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who is 6-4 against Cincinnati since he was hired before the 2008 season. "They've done a great job with the draft. They've always got playmakers on both sides of the ball. So, that's an evolution that has been going on. I don't think they are any more dangerous than they were last year, the year before or the year before that, and they've been plenty dangerous. Their quarterback is playing well. They've always been a mauling offensive line. So, that's what we are dealing with."

The Bengals have made two consecutive playoff berths and a third in a row would represent a franchise first. They are 13-4 in their past 17 regular-season games, while the Ravens are 8-9 during that same stretch. However, the Ravens got hot last season and continued their postseason progression by winning Super Bowl XLVII in February.

The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season when Sam Wyche was their head coach and former Maryland standout Boomer Esiason was their quarterback. Their 22-season drought without a playoff victory is the longest streak of its kind in the NFL.

But a lack of playoff success is pretty much all that's left that connects the currently Bengals to their rocky past and a time when they were once mockingly referred to as "the Bungles." The depth of talent that Cincinnati has assembled is certainly no laughing matter for the opposition.

"They just have playmakers all over the field," Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata said.

The Bengals' roster transformation started after a 4-12 campaign in 2010 that included 10 consecutive losses. Following the season, quarterback Carson Palmer asked for a trade, and he was ultimately sent to the Oakland Raiders for two draft picks. Wide receiver Chad Johnson, a lightning rod for controversy, was traded to the New England Patriots. Established veterans like Terrell Owens, Dhani Jones and Roy Williams were not re-signed as the Bengals committed to going with younger players.

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