Ravens prepare for high-stakes clash with Bengals

OWINGS MILLS - The stakes of this impending football game are akin to a poker contest with a jackpot stacked with chips. Bluffing won't earn the Baltimore Ravens the AFC North title in Sunday's rematch against the resurgent Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium. The Bengals' status as a downtrodden franchise has changed.

Expectations have heightened considerably since former Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis assumed control. "No, I'm not surprised," Baltimore offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo said of Lewis' impact as a head coach. "The passion he brings to the game, the intensity, it's contagious. "Once those guys saw the results of that, they bought into it and positive things are happening." 

Besides factoring in the contribution of Lewis, it's not much of a gamble to assume that Baltimore (7-5) absolutely needs to avenge an earlier road loss to Cincinnati (7-5) to gain control of a deadlocked division race. Although technically tied atop the AFC North, Cincinnati owns the first tiebreaker with its 34-26 victory over Baltimore in October built largely through Ravens rookie passer Kyle Boller committing three turnovers. "It's a game between the top two teams in our division," Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap said. "Pretty much, it will be the game that determines who goes to the playoffs. That's how we have to look at it." If the season ended today, Cincinnati would be the division champion and earn an automatic playoff berth. The Ravens wouldn't have a sufficient mark to earn a wild-card berth, ranking behind the Miami Dolphins

In its seven years of existence, Baltimore has never won a regular-season division title. "It's going to be a great Sunday for our fans in a rivalry that should begin," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Rivalries are built out of when someone wins or loses, it costs you something important. That hasn't necessarily been the case with Baltimore-Cincinnati. "It's the reason our rivalry was so big with Jacksonville and Tennessee and now with Pittsburgh. Outstanding team, Marvin's really got them playing well and confident, so this is a great extended rivalry that should build from this point forward." 

Opening the season 1-4, the Bengals have gone 6-1 beginning with their win over Baltimore. That run includes a shocking win over the previously-undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. Quarterback Jon Kitna has thrown 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions for a career-high 91.2 quarterback rating. In the loss to Cincinnati, Boller opened strongly by throwing a touchdown to Heap for a 7-0 lead. Then, the Ravens were hit with the calamity of turnovers and Kitna's pass deflecting off safety Ed Reed's pads to Chad Johnson for an 82-yard touchdown pass. Baltimore fell behind 34-10 by the third quarter after a Kitna touchdown to Peter Warrick. It was too formidable a lead for the Ravens to overcome. "We did a lot of things to beat ourselves last time," Heap said. "We thought we could go in and really keep 'em down, and they beat us. Nobody on our team was comfortable with that." Following consecutive wins over the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, including Sunday's 44-6 shellacking of the 49ers, Baltimore is 4-1 at home. Plus, the Ravens have remaining games against Oakland (3-9), Cleveland (4-8) and Pittsburgh (4-8). The remainder of the Bengals' schedule: San Francisco (5-7), St. Louis (9-3) and Cleveland. 

Following the Bengals' last-second 24-20 win Sunday over the Steelers, Lewis basically threw down the gauntlet. "Now we're going to do what people said we couldn't do," Lewis told Cincinnati reporters. "We're going to win three on the road. That is our goal. That is not a prediction." A Cincinnati win would give the Bengals a one-game edge with three games left, essentially a two-game lead because of the tiebreaker. Regardless of what happens Sunday, as Billick noted, it's a critical month of football where the AFC North won't be completely decided until the last week or next-to last week of the regular season. "This time of year really accentuates everything, good or bad," said kicker Matt Stover, who has converted his last 18 field goals. "The sense of urgency is there. It's either do or die." 

This is the first time a Bengals team has been two games over .500 heading into December since 1990. Yes, 13 years have passed since Boomer Esiason was the Cincinnati quarterback, Sam Wyche was Mike Brown's head coach and President George W. Bush's father was in the Oval Office. That's part of the reason the Bengals have become a trendy national story with columnists and panelists picking them to win the division. "Cincinnati's perspective, where they're at, it's a great story," Billick said. "Marvin's done a phenomenal job and everybody I think in the country is excited that Cincinnati has a team that has this kind of viability, but we can't let that distract us. "If we're fortunate enough to win, then we're just going to be these bad 'Baltimore Bullies' again, the guys that are killing this great national story and get on everybody's bad side again." 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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