Ravens looking to climb out of deep hole

OWINGS MILLS -- In a crossroads football game that launched the Baltimore Ravens on their downward spiral, the Cincinnati Bengals dealt them a crippling blow. The Ravens' epic collapse last December signaled their rapid descent in the AFC North, and the Bengals' power move.

It was a landmark moment for once-dreadful Cincinnati, which manufactured a 27-26 comeback victory where it overcame a 17-point deficit behind Carson Palmer's three fourth-quarter touchdown passes.

Ultimately, the painful loss in Baltimore cost the Ravens a playoff berth and changed the complexion of a division they used to rule.

Heading into Sunday's game between the last-place Ravens (2-5) and the first-place Bengals (6-2) at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore has lost nine of its last 13 games. Meanwhile, the Bengals have won 8 of their last 12 in transforming their image from perennial doormat to legitimate playoff contender.

The changing of the guard couldn't be more acute.

"You can't really say we're the better team if you go by the records," Ravens safety Chad Williams said. "They have a winning record right now and we're behind the gun. We're shooting for them, just like they were shooting for us the last couple of seasons."

Now, the Ravens are looking to harness the improved intensity and execution they demonstrated in a 20-19 loss Monday night to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It was the first time this year that the Ravens have resembled the fiercely competitive team that used to scare teams with its defense and brutish running game. For an outfit virtually on the brink of elimination from playoff contention, this is a critical encounter.

"I don't think our effort or passion has been lacking in any game," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose team hasn't defeated an opponent with a winning record since last November when it beat the New York Jets. "I have no qualms with the passion and effort that these guys have given. The execution was at a little bit higher level, and we've got to maintain that as we go down the way."

The Ravens' challenge is made even more difficult by the dangerous presence of Palmer and wide receiver Chad Johnson.

Palmer leads the NFL in touchdown passes (16), passing yards (2,037) and completion percentage (69.7), posting a 104.1 passer rating. Johnson leads the AFC in catches (48), receiving yards (717) and end-zone dances.

It's a tough assignment for cornerback Chris McAlister, who allowed Quincy Morgan to catch a first down that set up the Steelers' game-winning field goal. He may receive help from cornerback Samari Rolle.

"It's strength against strength," Billick said. "We feel very good about our defensive backs and they feel very good about their receiving corps."

The Ravens are likely to follow a familiar blueprint to try to move the football and keep Palmer on the sideline by trying to revive a dormant running game.

Running back Jamal Lewis is having his worst season, but he's always dominated the poor-tackling Bengals. He's gained more than 100 yards in all of his seven career games against Cincinnati.

Will Lewis duplicate a string of 116, 109, 136, 121, 101, 180 and 186 yards against the Bengals? Cincinnati's undersized front seven allows 4.7 yards per carry and gave up 221 and 181 rushing yards in losses to Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.

"It's one of those games where it's all about being physical because both teams know each other," said Lewis following a physical, 61-yard game in Pittsburgh. "It's always the same type of game. We're going to hit each other in the mouth."

The Ravens' current state of affairs is puzzling to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, the former Baltimore defensive coordinator who took pains all week to not awaken his old team from its slumber. He removed Johnson's taunting checklists and replaced them with his own team-oriented, uncontroversial rendition.

"I can't say why they are where they are at, but I'm very surprised," Lewis said. "Really, they're not as bad as their record says. There are a lot of good players on that field. I don't want them to get the ship righted this weekend."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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