Bengals shedding bumbling image

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 20, 2003

CINCINNATI - Marvin Lewis insists these aren't the Bungles anymore. Count his former team among the converted.

With a fired-up Lewis exhorting them from the sidelines, the Cincinnati Bengals pulled off a victory Sunday in a measuring-up game for their rookie head coach.

Kyle Boller's three first-half turnovers set up a 34-26 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, another small but meaningful step for the NFL's most downtrodden franchise.

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At 2-4, the Bengals have matched their victory total for last year and shed their image as a team to be pitied.

''As bad as you want to say, 'Yeah, it's the Bengals,' I think what you have to factor in is that it's still an NFL ballclub,'' Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. ''You have to come out and just play (good) football every Sunday, and there are no in-betweens in that. We just dug a hole too deep too early.''

Boller did most of the digging. The rookie came into the game as the NFL's lowest-rated passer, and promptly showed that accuracy isn't the only area for improvement.

He fumbled twice against the only NFL defense that hadn't recovered a fumble all season. He also threw an interception, setting up a 24-point spurt that left the Ravens (3-3) in a sorry state.

They're still in first place, but that's mostly good fortune. The AFC North is the only division without a winning record.

''It's not the end of the world, but it's a wake-up call for us,'' said safety Ed Reed, who had a hand - and shoulder - in the game's pivotal play.

Boller's fumble set up the first of Jon Kitna's three touchdown passes. Two plays later, Boller fumbled again, setting up Corey Dillon's 2-yard touchdown run.

After another failed Ravens series, Kitna made his worst decision of the day. He threw deep to Chad Johnson, who had three defenders around him. Reed closed in for the interception.

The ball went through his hands, landed on his right shoulder and deflected directly to Johnson, who caught it in stride for an 82-yard touchdown play.

At that point, the Bengals knew it was their day.

''The bounces have been going to the other teams this year,'' Kitna said. ''Sometimes, it's out of your control. Obviously, today was one of those days, because Reed made an unbelievable play.''

Boller also threw an interception that set up a field goal, and Kitna's third touchdown pass made it 34-10 early in the fourth quarter. That's when Boller started showing glimpses of how good he could be.

He was 6-of-11 for 162 yards in the fourth quarter, including a 73-yard touchdown pass to Travis Taylor.

''You know what, I'll live and die with my rookie quarterback,'' Ray Lewis said. ''I will live and die with him because what he showed me in that fourth quarter sets up for November and December, when those playoffs come around.''

When it was over, Lewis and linebacker Peter Boulware ran over to the Bengals sideline and congratulated their former defensive coordinator on his big moment.

Marvin Lewis kept his feelings private, but his players knew this win meant a lot to a coach who uses his success in Baltimore as a measuring stick.

''He wanted it,'' said Johnson, who had five catches for 130 yards. ''He wouldn't say so, but he did. I wanted to win for him more than anybody. He wanted it bad.''

Notes: Ravens RB Jamal Lewis had 101 yards, his fifth straight triple-digit rushing game. … Boller mildly sprained his left shoulder when he was slammed down by Justin Smith on the final drive. … RB Corey Dillon, who missed the Bengals' last game with a strained groin, was slow making cuts and had only 39 yards on 18 carries. … No. 1 draft pick Carson Palmer was Cincinnati's backup quarterback for the first time this season. He had been the emergency QB for the first five games.