5 KEYS TO THE GAME

1. In claiming midseason supremacy of the AFC North with a 26-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Baltimore Ravens built a quick advantage with a pair of touchdowns off of turnovers. First, running back Musa Smith pounced on Chris Perry fumbling the opening kickoff.

Six plays later, Jamal Lewis was in the end zone with a 2-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 advantage. Only three plays later, oft-criticized and picked-on cornerback Samari Rolle intercepted an overthrown Carson Palmer pass and handed off to safety Ed Reed for a 25-yard touchdown return. It was 14-0, and it wasn't quite five minutes into the game. Despite some shaky clock management from an offense that failed to run out the clock and declined to attempt a field goal with 25 seconds remaining from the Bengals' 28 after four consecutive field goals by Matt Stover, the defense held on. One drive after cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Ronnie Prude deflected passes to halt Palmer's comeback attempt, McAlister intercepted a deep Palmer pass intended for Chris Henry to finally put Cincinnati away. The victory snaps a three-game losing streak to Cincinnati (4-4) and puts Baltimore (6-2) ahead by two games in the AFC North.
2. This marked the Ravens' second consecutive win since coach Brian Billick assumed control of the play-calling. Although the Ravens were ineffective in the red zone, going 1-for-5 on scoring inside the Bengals' 20-yard line, they did move the football consistently and converted 6 of 15 third downs. The Ravens generated a season-high 374 yards of total offense behind an accurate, composed Steve McNair. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 245 yards and no interceptions for a 91.5 passer rating. McNair completed 10 of 14 throws by halftime for 107 yards. He was particularly adept at locating wide receiver Mark Clayton and tight end Todd Heap for key first downs, hitting them eight times for 73 yards and four times for 84 yards, respectively. 3. Two years after Palmer's epic fourth-quarter comeback in Baltimore from a 17-point deficit, a secondary that had allowed five touchdown passes in the previous two games limited Palmer to 195 yards on 12 of 26 passing, one touchdown and intercepted and sacked him twice. He finished the game with a 52.6 passer rating. Except for one big play, a 71-yard strike to Henry behind McAlister, the Ravens virtually shut down one of the NFL's most high-octane passing attacks. Meanwhile, wide receiver Chad Johnson left the locker room fuming after being held to four catches for 32 yards despite primarily being lined up against Rolle, who has been struggling for the past month. Running back Rudi Johnson scored a touchdown by busting through an injured Ray Lewis, but never took over the game as he ran it 18 times for 77 yards. 4. Although running back Jamal Lewis was limited to a three-yard average on 24 carries for 72 yards, he made a clock-choking impact by helping the Ravens establish a major time of possession advantage that kept the Bengals' dangerous offense off the field. Baltimore built a major edge in this category, controlling the football for 37 minutes and 24 seconds as compared to the Bengals' 22 minutes and 36 seconds.
5. The Ravens' defense was especially sharp when it counted the most, killing the Bengals' drives and momentum by holding them to 1-of-10 efficiency on third downs.

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

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