Bengals try to play spoiler

Published 11:27 pm Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Associated Press

BALTIMORE — If Marvin Lewis was as successful against the rest of the NFL as he’s been against the Baltimore Ravens, there wouldn’t be speculation about whether his run as coach of the Cincinnati Bengals will end Sunday.

The Bengals are 10-5 against Baltimore since Lewis took over in 2003. Cincinnati has won three straight in the series, including a 15-10 victory in September that could ultimately determine whether Pittsburgh or the Ravens dethrone the Bengals as AFC North champions.

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Baltimore (11-4) has already clinched a playoff berth, but to win the division it needs a win over Cincinnati (4-11) on Sunday combined with a loss or tie by the Steelers in Cleveland. Pittsburgh and the Ravens are tied atop the AFC North, but the Steelers have the edge by virtue of a better division record — the difference being Baltimore’s loss at Cincinnati in Week 2.

“It was disappointing at the time, but it’s real disappointing now knowing the late-season implications that it has,” Baltimore linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “That said, we can’t worry about it. We just have to go out and win this week.”

Lewis was defensive coordinator for the Ravens for six years, including 2000, when Baltimore rolled through a season that ended with a Super Bowl victory. His eight-year run in Cincinnati has had plenty of ups and downs, with this season falling squarely into the latter category.

Lewis declined an extension after guiding the Bengals to the playoffs last season. Now his contract is about to expire, and he would love to guide Cincinnati to a third straight win before meeting with owner Mike Brown next week to determine his future with the team.

Ending the season with a flourish, rather than completing a second consecutive sweep of Baltimore, is what motivates Lewis the most.

“This is going to be an important football game to win for us, to finish with three straight victories,” Lewis said. “To close out the season that way would be big, against another team that we know is going on to the playoffs and a really, really good football team.”

The Bengals, however, have a way of bringing out the worst in the Ravens. Baltimore totaled only 21 points in two defeats against Cincinnati last year, and third-year Joe Flacco threw four of his nine interceptions this season in that ugly September loss.

“They’ve played us pretty well, and we haven’t beaten them since my (rookie) year,” Flacco said. “They play really tough defense. They cover guys well. They stop the run well. So we’ve got to come ready to play this week. I think that’s the motivation, to just go out there and play a really good game against what we believe is a good team.”

Cincinnati eliminated the San Diego Chargers from playoff contention last week with a 34-20 win at home, and now the defending AFC champs get to have the final word on who wins the division this season.

Asked if the Bengals relish their role as spoilers, quarterback Carson Palmer replied, “Oh, absolutely. It’s something we looked forward to last week and enjoyed doing, and we have somewhat of a chance to do that this week, just changing what could happen in the AFC playoff picture. That’s all you’ve got right now, and unfortunately, that’s where we are.”

Several of the Bengals are also playing for their jobs, whether Lewis returns or not. Injured wide receiver Terrell Owens (knee) and running back Cedric Benson will become free agents, and Cincinnati must decide if it wants to exercise a $6 million option on wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (who could miss Sunday’s game with an ankle injury).

Considering the possibility that this could be his last game with the Bengals, Benson said, “The thought crosses your mind. I just want to finish strong. We definitely want to end it on a good note. We’ve got a little bit of a streak going here, and it would be great to finish it out.”

The Ravens are hoping for a division title, but even if Pittsburgh doesn’t lose, a victory over the Bengals would enable Baltimore to take a four-game winning streak into the postseason.

“We understand how important this win could be,” Flacco said. “Either way, I think we just want to go out and win a football game so we can just finish the season 12-4 and have some momentum going into the playoffs.”