AFC North supremacy on the line

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Supremacy in the AFC North is within the Baltimore Ravens' grasp midway through the season, and the Cincinnati Bengals represent the major obstacle in their path.

Today's pivotal encounter at M&T Bank Stadium carries heightened stakes as the first-place Ravens (5-2) can assume a two-game advantage over the Bengals (4-3) with a victory. A loss would create a first-place tie, and extend the Bengals' winning streak over their Baltimore rivals to four consecutive games.
Ever since an epic comeback engineered by Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer two years ago in Baltimore to overcome a 17-point deficit, the Ravens have been chasing the Bengals unsuccessfully. Cincinnati emerged with the division title last season in dominant fashion, sweeping the Ravens with an average of 30 points per contest.
"We understand that we are in sole control of our destiny right now," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "If we understand that, we know we can take full control of our division with this game right here.
"You really can't ask for anything more at the midseason point. That's where our focus is, and we know our mentality. We match up very well across the ball, and everybody knows it."
To accomplish their goal of controlling the division reins, the Ravens have to solve one of their most perplexing mysteries: how to eliminate the big play.
The Ravens' secondary has surrendered five touchdown passes in the past two games, each coming on long spirals of 25 yards or more.
"Clearly, that is the No. 1 thing and certainly against a team like Cincinnati, we better get it under control," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "They could light this thing up if we don't handle the deep ball better."
That starts with preventing Palmer from putting a singular imprint on this encounter by carving up the Ravens' disjointed secondary. Palmer has averaged 311 passing yards and tossed eight touchdown passes in the past three games against Baltimore.
Utilizing three-step drops and a talented bevy of receivers comprised by Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry, the All-Pro quarterback has one of the quickest releases in the NFL since Dan Marino.
"Him, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, all of them pretty much have got a deadly gun on that arm," rush end Terrell Suggs said. "When you play some good quarterbacks like that, you better be fundamentally sound. Otherwise, they are going to have a big day against you.
"Once he knows what defense you're in, he knows exactly where to go with the ball. So, we definitely have to do a good job with disguising it."
Plus, the Ravens have to cover much better and have better communication between safety Ed Reed and cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, who are likely to be paired opposite Johnson and Houshmandzadeh, respectively.
The Ravens allowed Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme to pile up 365 yards and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees generated 383 passing yards last Sunday.
Although the Bengals enter this game having lost three of four games after opening the season 3-0, Palmer has passed for 1,684 yards and 13 touchdowns.
"The bottom line is stopping the ball from going over our head," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "If we can do that, it's going to be hard for anybody to score any points against us."
The Ravens sport the NFL's top rushing defense and red-zone defense, but offenses have been using Rolle for target practice. He has allowed a touchdown pass in four of the past five games. "I think we just need to pay attention to detail, fundamentals and communication," Rolle said. "We have to play better on the back end."
Offensively, the Ravens hope to duplicate what transpired last week after Billick took over the play-calling after firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel.
Utilizing play-action, a spread formation with four wide receivers and an inspired Jamal Lewis running out of the I-formation, the Ravens scored three offensive touchdowns against New Orleans and produced 293 yards of total offense with no interceptions from quarterback Steve McNair.
"There's no reason why we shouldn't play like that every week because we have the guys on that side of the ball to do it," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We did some things that catered to Steve's strengths. If you feel confidence in a lot of the plays we ran, you can get revved up.
"I think it's going to be very pivotal for us to not only win the time of possession, but we have to put points on the board. It's going to be very key for us because they have a lot of offensive weapons and they're the type of offense that only needs five plays to score. As an offense, we need to stay on the field and give our defense time to rest." McNair rushed for two touchdowns and ran for another against the Saints and didn't have a turnover after tossing four intercepions in his previous 38 throws.
"They thrive on turnovers," McNair said regarding the Bengals. "I feel like if we don't turn the ball over, we have a good chance of winning."
While Billick tried to downplay the potential ramifications of today's outcome, it's clear how important this game is to a team on the verge of either truly controlling its destiny or facing an uncertain road to the playoffs.
"Just get the win on Sunday, everything else will take care of itself," Billick said. "Just get a win on Sunday, our whole world is about that."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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