Ravens on the brink against Bengals

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens' usually raucous locker room wasn't nearly as brash and boisterous environment this week.<br><br> Rap and R&B music didn't blare as much or as loudly from tight end Daniel Wilcox's stereo. An impromptu wrestling match between the linebackers and the tight ends was one of the few moments where a single-minded focus wasn't evident.

There's a major reason why the volume has been muted. The Ravens (7-4) are in the thick of the playoff hunt for a wild-card berth, and were exposed in a 24-3 loss a week ago by the New England Patriots.
A setback today at M&T Bank Stadium against the dangerous Cincinnati Bengals (5-6) -- or any more losses at home -- would deal a potentially crippling blow to postseason aspirations.

"We ain't going to be short on intensity," veteran cornerback Corey Fuller said. "We know they're trying to ruin our season."

In the ultra-competitive AFC, the Ravens need to win all three remaining home games and likely upset Indianapolis or Pittsburgh on the road to be assured of a playoff berth.

The Ravens are currently tied with the Denver Broncos for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. The New York Jets (8-3) are one game ahead of Baltimore, but have yet to play Houston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, New England and St. Louis.

Eleven wins is the target. Can the Ravens hit that high-water mark?
"We can't afford to let any more games get by because the playoff race is so tight," defensive end Tony Weaver said. "The playoffs start Sunday for us. We can't lose this one. This is a huge game and we take a lot of pride in defending our home turf."

Traditionally, the Ravens can be counted on for a few things. One, they rarely lose at home. This year, they're 4-1 in Baltimore.
And, following losses by 10 or more points, they're gone 8-1 since 2000.

"It's a group that's been around for a while," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Part of it is not dwelling on a loss. This group doesn't do that. They move on very quickly. They work very well during the week."

The defending AFC North champions haven't lost consecutive games this season.

"The main thing is pride," receiver Travis Taylor said. "We take pride and motivation from each other. When we're angry, a whole different level of football comes out of us."

Another intangible working in the Ravens' favor is the Bengals' terrible history against successful football teams on the road. The Bengals have lost 42 games in a row on the road to winning teams, a string that dates back to Dec. 2, 1990 when Cincinnati defeated the Steelers 16-12 at Three Rivers Stadium.

"This is personal," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, the former Ravens defensive coordinator and Finksburg resident. "This is a big game, and we need to win a big game. I think we kind of get to the brink and then we back up all the time.

"I would say that we're close and pushing over the hump, but we haven't done that yet. It's important that we do that. There's a little bit of fear of failure that creeps into our minds."

The Ravens' identity crisis on offense, one marked by no 100-yard rushing performances since Oct. 10 against the Washington Redskins and All-Pro runner Jamal Lewis' continued absence today with a sprained ankle, has complicated their outlook.

Chester Taylor will start again for Lewis, who could be out another week or two. Taylor has averaged only 76 yards in his previous three starts.

The Ravens attempted just 20 runs in last week's loss to the defending Super Bowl champions, gaining a mere 70 yards. The commitment to running seemingly is no longer a part of the game plan.
"If you want to win with this team, we have to run the ball a lot and run it well," offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo said.

Baltimore is ill suited for a shootout, which is the Bengals' game.
They downed Cleveland 58-48 last week as developing quarterback Carson Palmer threw four touchdown passes and underrated running back Rudi Johnson gained a career-high 202 yards.

Baltimore hasn't scored more than 30 points this season, and the NFL's 31st-ranked passing team only generates 131.9 yards a game. Tight end Todd Heap is expected to make a brief appearance after missing the last nine games with a sprained ankle.

"I don't think it will be a shootout," Mulitalo said. "Our defense won't let that happen. We're not an offense that can score 50 points, so we can't get into that type of game and win.

"It would be tough sledding. I think we're just going to pound the ball and keep them off the field."

The Ravens might want to run the ball since Cincinnati is 30th against the run.

Or try to pick off Palmer, who has thrown 16 interceptions including two to Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed in Baltimore's 23-9 win at Paul Brown Stadium. The Ravens are 5-0 this year when Reed intercepts a pass.
"You hear about the Bengals and you associate them with being the Bungles and the reality is that they're a good team," Weaver said.

Under Billick, the Ravens are 31-14 at home and haven't lost to Cincinnati in Baltimore since Ted Marchibroda was the coach in 1996.
"I think it speaks for itself," said cornerback Chris McAlister, who will start today after being limited to third downs last week while recovering from a stinger. "We come out to fight in our own house."
 

Aaron Wilson is the chief writer for RavensInsider.Com He is also the Ravens' reporter for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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