Baltimore wants to end Bengals story

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 7, 2003

BALTIMORE - The Baltimore Ravens are ready to close the book on the Cincinnati Bengals' stunning turnaround season.

With first-year coach Marvin Lewis leading the way, the Bengals have shed their reputation as the Bungles in remarkable fashion. By winning six of seven and four in a row - the last two on the road - Cincinnati (7-5) has moved into contention for its first postseason berth since 1990.

Standing in the way are the Ravens (7-5), who host the Bengals on Sunday in a matchup for first place in the AFC North.

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''Marvin has done a phenomenal job, and I think everybody in the country is excited that Cincinnati has a team that has this kind of viability,'' Ravens coach Brian Billick said. ''But we can't let that distract us. If we're fortunate enough to win, then we're just going to be those bad Baltimore Bullies again, the guys that are killing this great national story.''

The saga of the 2003 Bengals reads like unfathomable fiction: A ridiculed franchise that endured 12 consecutive years without a winning season, including 2-14 in 2002, becomes a contender under a spirited leader who long yearned for a team to call his own.

And now, the Bengals' biggest game in 13 years comes against a team Lewis helped win a Super Bowl in 2001 as its defensive coordinator. The star of that world championship team was middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who isn't exactly awash with sentiment at the prospect of hooking up with his former coach.

''They're having a good season; Marvin has done a great job getting it turned around,'' Ray Lewis said. ''But it's simple enough - now they have to come to Baltimore. We'll be waiting for them.''

When the teams played in October, Cincinnati took advantage of three turnovers in a 34-26 victory. As the game drew to a close, Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna told Ray Lewis he was going to take a knee to run out the clock.

Lewis replied, ''The same thing that makes you laugh can make you cry. Don't ask for all those turnovers and don't ask for us to drop interceptions the next time. I can promise you we won't.''

Kitna threw for 244 yards and three touchdown passes without an interception during a truly memorable afternoon. But the Bengals haven't won in Baltimore since 1996, and the Ravens are 5-1 at home this season.

''They know what happens when they come to play us in Baltimore,'' Ray Lewis said. ''It's not that we're boasting or talking trash. It's simple: Teams don't play well when they come see the Ravens at home. So come see us again here, because this time we're playing ticked off.''

With a victory, the Bengals can secure the first tiebreaker in determining division champion: head-to-head results. Standing in the way is a defense that had four interceptions last week in a 44-6 rout of San Francisco.

''They're the most confusing team I've ever played against in the NFL,'' Kitna said. ''That's what makes it tough playing against them at their place. It's already tough to communicate verbally with your teammates, and they do all the things they do to create more confusion.''

Running against the Ravens is never easy, no matter where the game is played, so Cincinnati will probably have to count on Kitna to move the ball. Receivers Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick both scored touchdowns in the first game, and enter the rematch confident of doing the same.

''Me and Pete, we're like 7-11, we're like the Waffle House: We're always open,'' Johnson said. ''So it makes Kit's job real easy. It doesn't get no better than that.''

Before this season, the Bengals were little more than a break in the schedule for the Ravens, 9-1 against Cincinnati since 1997. Now, with Marvin Lewis on the opposite sideline and the stakes so high, Billick sees this as a budding rivalry.

''Rivalries are built when one someone wins or loses, it costs you something, and it's important. That's not always been the case with Baltimore-Cincinnati,'' Billick said. ''Marvin's got them playing well and confident, so this is a great, extended rivalry that should build from this point forward.''