Ravens ride Jamal's shoulders to key AFC North win

BALTIMORE - His knuckles were scarred, and traces of blood dotted Jamal Lewis' uniform pants. <P> It was just that sort of football game, a grudge-fest built around increased stakes.

Only, it was the Baltimore Ravens' bruising running back and his massive offensive line inflicting the majority of the punishment on a wintry Sunday afternoon.

Wielding helmets and shoulder pads as weapons to blow the Cincinnati Bengals off the line of scrimmage, the Ravens ultimately left cleat marks all over the visitors' chests to regain control of the AFC North title race.

The Ravens' 31-13 knockout of former Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' Bengals was engineered by Jamal Lewis' 180 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries. It was his sixth 100-yard performance against the Bengals in as many career games.

Baltimore (8-5) won its seventh home game in a row over Cincinnati (7-6) to earn its club-record fifth consecutive win of the season at M&T Bank Stadium.

"Jamal is a very physical runner and we let Cincinnati know that we were going to bring the wood to them all day," fullback Alan Ricard said. "We could see it in their eyes that they were getting tired of getting hit in the mouth. They knew we weren't going to stop firing off the ball and hitting them."

Plus, an opportunistic defense spearheaded an assault on Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna and silenced talkative receiver Chad Johnson as Cincinnati lost its 39th road game in a row to a team with a winning record.

Perhaps it was fitting that the game was played in 34-degree temperatures that felt like 23 degrees with the wind chill. It was a dish of revenge served ice-cold after a 34-26 Bengals win over Baltimore in October.

"I think this was a statement game for us," said linebacker Ray Lewis, who passed Rod Woodson and Duane Starks as the Ravens' all-time interception leader with his fifth of the season and the 21st of his career. "There was a sour taste in our mouths from what happened the last time we played them. We revved it up."

Kitna, the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Month, had been on quite a roll, throwing nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last three games. On Sunday, Kitna received rougher treatment as he was sacked six times, lost two fumbles and was intercepted twice.

Meanwhile, Johnson was limited to two receptions for 15 yards and didn't catch his first pass until the fourth quarter. This followed his boastful claims that no defensive back could cover him, calling retired All-Pro Deion Sanders in an apparent quest for stiffer competition. "Nevertheless, 7-11 did get shut down," said cornerback Chris McAlister, who shadowed Johnson. "Deion Sanders can stay retired and we can handle Chad Johnson. That's the bottom line." Lewis overcame a sprained wrist to score touchdowns of 1, 3 and 13 yards. Before kickoff, he predicted to teammates that he would rush for 200 yards.

Lewis staked Baltimore to a 7-3 advantage to make up for his fifth lost fumble this year and the 21st overall of his career.

His 1-yard touchdown plunge was set up by Peter Warrick muffing a punt recovered by Ravens safety Chad Williams.

Once Tory James pushed Ravens wide receiver Marcus Robinson out of bounds for a pass interference infraction, Lewis followed Orlando Brown's block for a touchdown.

"Once things were working for me and they weren't really able to stop it, I just kept going and all they could do was pretty much wear down," said Lewis, who gained 96 yards in the second half and is on a 1,996-yard pace. The Ravens used straightforward blocking schemes, sealing the Bengals' smaller front seven off with Ricard and center Mike Flynn left free to kick out linebackers and defensive backs. "We knew they would do a lot of blitzes and stunts because that's the defense Marvin ran when he was here," Flynn said. "We knew if we could break the line of scrimmage, Jamal could be off to the races."

Quarterback Anthony Wright executed an 8-yard fade route for Baltimore's second touchdown, exploiting Robinson's superior size in the second quarter.

"When the defensive back is on an island, it's kind of like you're playing golf and you've got to make this putt and nobody out there can help you," Wright said. "It makes him think twice." Later, Wright hit Travis Taylor for 64 yards downfield to set up Matt Stover's 22-yard field goal, his 19th in a row.

Wright, who was off his game with a 46.9 quarterback rating, threw an interception to set up the Bengals' lone touchdown. Kitna tossed a 4-yard scoring pass to Warrick, who caught 11 passes for 90 yards.

The Ravens broke the game open in the second half when rookie linebacker Terrell Suggs sacked Kitna, stripped him and set up Lewis' second touchdown run for a 24-13 lead.

Baltimore overcame another Wright interception in the fourth quarter when safety Will Demps rambled 54 yards on a Kitna interception. That got Lewis in position for a lumbering 13-yard touchdown run between right guard Bennie Anderson and offensive tackle Orlando Brown's blocks.

Kitna had 19 touchdown passes and four interceptions in his previous nine games. "They kind of smelled blood," Kitna said. "It was a tough day all-around."

It was the 50th win of Ravens coach Brian Billick's career.

Many national pundits had picked the Bengals to win this game and eventually claim the AFC North title. Now, Baltimore merely has to win its remaining games against Oakland, Cleveland and Pittsburgh to return to the playoffs.

"It's good to be the underdog," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "That shows that a lot of people don't know football. If you count the Ravens out, we just feed off that."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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