Bengals visit Ravens in pivotal AFC North clash

Published 11:43 pm Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Associated Press


BALTIMORE — The Cincinnati Bengals have surprised quite a few people with their impressive start this season. The Baltimore Ravens are not among those on the list.

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Cincinnati went 4-12 last year and still beat the Ravens. Baltimore is 5-4 in its last nine regular-season games against Pittsburgh and 3-6 against the Bengals.

So don’t go telling the Ravens (6-3) that Sunday’s showdown for first place in the AFC North is an unexpected development.

“I knew they were always on the brink of being a good team,” Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Now they’re winning games.”

Suggs is the Ravens’ career sacks leader, but he didn’t have one last year against Cincinnati (6-3). On Sunday he will be chasing quarterback Andy Dalton, whose 14 touchdown passes over the first nine games is the most by a rookie since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

Four different Cincinnati receivers have at least 26 catches and two touchdowns, most notably A.J. Green (41 receptions, six TDs). Green’s return from a right knee injury sustained in last week’s 24-17 loss to the Steelers won’t be determined until game time, but coach Marvin Lewis still has plenty of options to send at the renowned Baltimore defense he ruled from 1996-2001.

“They’ve got some good weapons over there,” Suggs said. “This team is not only dangerous, but they’re special. Marvin Lewis knows that. They’re playing with a lot of confidence. We definitely have some work to do, especially after last week.”

Ah, last week. Coming off an uplifting win in Pittsburgh, the Ravens inexplicably lost at Seattle to tumble out of first place.

“We lost a game. Nobody feels good about it, but at the same time, we can’t really ride that wave and be on emotional highs and lows,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We have to get ready to play another game — a very important game.”

The winner climbs into a first-place tie with Pittsburgh, and the Ravens own the tiebreaker with the Steelers. The Bengals can ill afford to drop into third place with an 0-1 record against each of the top two teams.

“I think that’s really key, that (the Ravens) have kind of put their best foot forward already in the division by beating the Steelers twice,” Lewis said. “So for Pittsburgh and us and Cleveland … we’re all kind of playing uphill to the Ravens right now. This is a big football game that way. If you want to win your division, you’ve got to win the division games.”

Cincinnati is 4-1 on the road this season, but this will be its toughest test to date. The Ravens have won six in a row at home and 14 of 15.

“That’s our challenge, to win again on the road,” Lewis said. “We know that, like some places we’ve played this year, it can get loud. But we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do — be efficient on offense and be exact on defense. Then it just comes down to playing football.”

Cincinnati’s six wins are against teams with a combined 22-36 record, but the Bengals feel no need to defend themselves after their strong showing in defeat against Pittsburgh.

“It was tough that we ended up losing, but we were in the game the whole time,” said Dalton, who brought Cincinnati back from an early 14-0 deficit. “And so, we do have confidence we’re going to be in a lot of these games.”

After facing the mighty defense of the Steelers, Dalton now must rebound against a unit similarly stocked with veteran talent.

“It seems like when you talk about Baltimore and you talk about their defense, you talk about Ray Lewis you talk about Ed Reed,” he said. “It’s going to be fun to get a chance to play them.”

Although Dalton has been intercepted nine times, the Bengals have lost only one fumble and own a plus-3 turnover differential.

“I think that they’re winning in the same way they played last year,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They’re just doing it a little bit better in the sense that they’ve really protected the football. That’s probably the No. 1 key. They’re playing excellent defense and they’re moving the football. They are a well-rounded football team.”

It’s nothing Harbaugh hasn’t seen before from Cincinnati.

“They’ve beaten us plenty of times. We’ve always had a ton of respect for the Bengals,” he said. “It’s a big rivalry game for us. It’s one of the toughest games we play every single year. One of the most physical games we play, and that’s what we’re gearing up for.”

Baltimore has won its last 11 games following a loss — the longest current streak in the NFL — and is 14-4 in that situation during Harbaugh’s three-year tenure. Ravens fans lamented the defeat the Seattle for days, but the players quickly went into bounce-back mode.

“It hasn’t been difficult,” Suggs said. “We’re all professionals here.”