OWINGS MILLS – Pivotal NFL showdowns don't usually unfold this many weeks until winter, not in the black-and-blue AFC North, and rarely between the Baltimore Ravens and the usually downtrodden Cincinnati Bengals.
However, that isn't the case today at M&T Bank Stadium as the Ravens (6-3) and Bengals (6-3) grapple for first place in the division.
A significantly improved Bengals squad has already won two more games than their entire total from last season, spearheaded by impressive rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.
And they could pose quite a challenge to the consistency-challenged Ravens who could find themselves either a half-game ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers with a win or falling to third place in the AFC North by late afternoon with a loss.
Even during the Bengals' bad campaigns, they've had success against the Ravens with six victories out of the past nine games in the series.
"I knew they were always on the brink of being a good team," Ravens Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Now they're winning games. They've got some good weapons over there. 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."
Suggs is referencing the Ravens' latest no-show act on the road, a defeat to the Seattle Seahawks that marks their third road loss to a team with a losing record following an emotional win.
The Ravens' inability to handle success is confusing considering they have traditionally won the games they were expected to in the John Harbaugh era until this year.
It has defined the Ravens' season so far, though.
"We lost a game," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Nobody feels good about it, but we can't really ride that wave and be on emotional highs and lows. We have to get ready to prepare in a couple of days and play another game, a very important game."
The Ravens are expected to be shorthanded on defense today due to All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis' toe injury that could sideline him for this game and perhaps others depending on how fast he heals and whether he attempts to play with the air of a pain-killing injection.
The Ravens haven't officially ruled Lewis out, listing him as questionable.
Meanwhile, the Bengals are unlikely to have rookie wide receiver A.J. Green on the field due to a hyperextended right knee. He leads all rookie receivers with 41 receptions and six touchdowns.
And Dalton has thrown more touchdown passes with 14 scoring throws since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, topping Dan Marino and Jim Plunkett.
The Bengals no longer have diva veterans Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens or disgruntled quarterback Carson Palmer as distractions.
It's a young football team that isn't jaded.
"I'd say we have better players," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "I think we've improved ourselves in a number of different spots, and I think that's been important. I think we're more talented in most spots than we were a year ago, and I think that's made a big difference."
The turnaround has opened eyes around the NFL with Dalton manufacturing two fourth-quarter comebacks and earning praise around the league.
The Bengals are a changed team.
"I think that they're winning in the same way they played last year," 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 defence and they're moving the football. They are a well-rounded football team.
"They've beaten us plenty of times. We've always had a ton of respect for the Bengals. 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."
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 14-4 after a loss and have won their past 11 games since a defeat. They've also won their past six home games and 14 of their past 15 in Baltimore.
Proud owners of a sweep over the archrival Steelers, the Ravens can make a strong statement today by bashing the upstart Bengals. The Bengals are no slouches on the road, winning four of five games away from Cincinnati.
"I think that's really key, that they have kind of put their best foot forward already in the division by beating the Steelers twice," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who lost to the Steelers a week ago. "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.
"That's our challenge, to win again on the road. We know that, like some places we've played this year, it can get loud. We've got to be efficient on offence and be exact on defense. Then, it just comes down to playing football."
Offensively, the Ravens face strategic challenges in terms of the Bengals' primary schemes orchestrated by highly-regarded defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
The Bengals operate with a 4-3 front and a use the Cover 2 defense for pass coverage.
They rank second against the run and fifth in total defense.
And Flacco has averaged only 178.2 passing yards in six career games against Cincinnati with just four touchdown passes against nine interceptions with a putrid 62.3 quarterback rating.
At least he won't be playing against cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph, who signed with the Houston Texans, and Leon Hall, who's out for the season with a torn Achilles' tendon.
"Not rreally too much challenge to it," Flacco insisted. "There are going to be two high safeties, two low corners and the Mike ‘backer is either going to be dropping back or they are going to be playing some sort of man underneath. It's pretty straightforward."
That might be so, but Flacco has rarely had much success against the Bengals
The Bengals also have a formidable pass rush, ranking seventh in the league with 25 sacks led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins, defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson and blitzing strong safety Chris Crocker.
"I think they have a front-four that is playing really well right now," Flacco said. "I think the main thing is to stop the front four from getting pressure and not creating lanes to run the ball in. If we do that, then we are going to do a good job.
"These guys have done a good job all year and in the past of playing well up front against us. I think if we eliminate that the way we are capable of, then we are going to have success."
The Bengals just had a five-game winning streak snapped.
And the Ravens are looking to defend their turf and get their season back on track after a frustrating trip to the Pacific Northwest a week ago.
Have the Ravens truly absorbed the lessons from three losses.
"It hasn't been difficult," Suggs said. "We're all professionals here."
Notebook:Stover to be inducted into Ravens' Ring of Honor today
OWINGS MILLS – Two years ago, Matt Stover met with Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.
The former Pro Bowl kicker wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings about him ending his career with the Indianapolis Colts after he and the Ravens were unable to reach a contract agreement and the team moved on with Steve Hauschka.
"I just wanted sit down, man to man, because I respect him so much, to say, ‘Look, here's what happened," Stover said. "Right after that, he says, ‘You know Matt, your name is going in that Ring of Honor.' I went, ‘Wow. Are you kidding me? You want that for me? Unbelievable.' That was the first time it entered my mind."
Now, that's set to become a reality at halftime of today's game against the Cincinnati Bengals when Stover will be inducted into the Ravens' Ring of Honor.
Stover will join offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, linebacker Peter Boulware, running back Earnest Byner and defensive end Michael McCrary.
Stover is the leading scorer in Ravens franchise history with 1,464 points on 354 field goals and 402 extra points.
He made three of his 14 career game-winning field goals against the Bengals, scoring 284 points against them for his most points against any opponent.
"It's just a privilege to be a part of the Ring of Honor," Stover said. "I can't say enough about the community of Baltimore and how they embraced the team. I was part of that. It was bigger than just the game, it was bigger than just kicking for me. It was always about the other guy, helping the other person to be the best they could be. That's really what my main mission was."
Stover played 18 seasons for the original Cleveland Browns and came to Maryland when the Ravens were launched in 1996.
"We didn't even have a name, we didn't have colors, we didn't have anything," Stover said. "We wore black helmets, white shirts, jerseys. We don't know anything. We didn't even have sweatpants, and it was freezing out there in minicamps.
"Then, I saw the tradition that this city had missed for 14 years, and how they deserved and were honored by getting a team. We owe Art Modell and his family a tremendous debt for that. Now that Steve Bisciotti owns the team, things have gotten even better."
Stover ranks fourth in NFL history for scoring, and he did it in rough weather conditions as only 25 of his field goals were made indoors.
It was Stover who connected on 35 field goals during the Ravens' Super Bowl championship team, scoring all of the points during a five-game stretch.
"Of course, you have to perform," Stover said. "You have to kick the field goals. You have to hit the big ones and kicking the team into the Super Bowl."
Stover and his family remain in Baltimore, active in charitable efforts in the community.
"He's one of the special guys," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "This is just the beginning for Matt in a lot of ways. The things he's going to do in business and the things he's going to do in this community for Baltimore and for all of us is going to be neat to watch."
WANTING MORE: Since the Ravens drafted rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith in the second round out of the University of Maryland, he's been plagued by inconsistent hands.
He's caught 23 passes for 425 yards and leads the Ravens with four touchdown catches and an average of 18.5 yards per reception.
By his estimation, though, he could have had five to six more touchdowns if not for dropped passes and a lack of timing between himself and quarterback Joe Flacco.
"We're getting close," said Smith, who acknowledges that the NFL lockout has affected his development. "There are plays where Joe is trying to figure me out and I'm still trying to figure him out. Once we get on the same page all the time, we'll be a deadly combo."
Smith said he has perfect vision, chalking up his drops to a lack of concentration.
"I take my eyes off the ball," Smith said. "I can see perfectly fine. It's just about locking on the ball and concentrating."
Smith said he expects to finish the season with 10 touchdowns.
"I'm still going to get there," he said. "I'm playing average, but I'm learning from a lot of the ups and downs of being a rookie. I know I can play at this level. The game is slowing down for me now."
LONG-RANGE STRUGGLES: Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff has connected on only 1 of 6 field goals from beyond 50 yards.
He has missed from 51, 51, 52, 50 and 52 yards, making a 51-yarder against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
One of his misses against the Seattle Seahawks was due to a bad snap from Morgan Cox.
"I've gone through a lot of them and each kick is different," Cundiff said. "It's just a matter of putting it all together when it matters most. I've got the confidence and the coaches have the confidence in me. I need to execute."
Cundif has made 6 of 7 kicks between 40 and 49 yards and is perfect from 39 yards and lower.
Overall, he's 21 of 27 with 85 points.
"In my career, people have said I couldn't do something," Cundiff said. "When I first got into the league, I didn't kick off and people said I couldn't kick off. Then, people said I couldn't stick a job. Then, people said I couldn't be the guy. This is just another progression of my career as a kicker."
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