Ravens chasing AFC North title

OWINGS MILLS -- Before midnight, by the end of a pivotal football game tonight forecast to be played under stormy, bone-chilling conditions, the Baltimore Ravens could emerge as division champions for the second time in their existence.

The realization that a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals (6-5) at Paul Brown Stadium would clinch the AFC North title has been alive in the Ravens' locker room even prior to bullying the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers five days ago.
Now, the Ravens (9-2) have visions of wearing division champion caps and T-shirts in the visitors' locker room tonight provided they can deal with one of the most potent offenses in the league. There's even a notation about becoming the 2006 title winners scrawled on the bulletin board of the Ravens' locker room at their training complex.
"We have enough veteran leadership to understand what we are fighting for," linebacker Bart Scott said. "To be able to go out on the road and clinch the division is a huge goal. It's one step closer to the ultimate goal. To go out there and take care of business, I think that's what championship teams do when they have the opportunity.
"We had the opportunity to pretty much take the Steelers off of life support last week, and we took it. I think that was a sign of maturity and a sign of a championship heart. We'll try to prove it this week and get our hats and T-shirts on the road."
A win over the Bengals would make Baltimore the second-earliest team to clinch a playoff berth since the NFL went to an eight-division format in 2002. Only the Philadelphia Eagles, who won the NFC East on Nov. 28, 2004, would have accomplished the task in speedier fashion.
In 2000, Baltimore went on an 11-game winning streak en route to winning Super Bowl XXXV.
However, even that hard-nosed outfit didn't secure a playoff berth until the 15th week of the regular season. The Ravens' two other playoff teams (2001 and 2003) didn't gain entry to the postseason until the final week.
Holding the No. 2 AFC playoff seed, the Ravens are one game behind the Indianapolis Colts (10-1) and have designs on earning a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the postseason.
"It's good, but the thing about it is that we have to finish it off," Ravens quarterback Steve McNair said. "We have to finish it off this week, and next week, we'll be in the position that we want to be.
"We have to go out and take this one, regardless of what situation we get put in. During the course of the game, we're going to have some ups and downs, but we have to weather that storm and fight through it. At the end of the day, when all the dust is cleared, we want to be 10-2."
Four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Trevor Pryce has seen this transpire before, a team growing in confidence and camaraderie and giving off signs that it might be built to go the distance. The 10-year veteran won two Super Bowl rings with the Denver Broncos prior to signing a $25 million contract with Baltimore this spring.
"I do get a good feeling, but you have to reserve that about this team until the season ends and you see where you wind up in the playoff picture," Pryce said. "A lot of the guys are just now getting used to all the attention and the eyes of people saying we're the best team in football. You have to take all that with a grain of salt because if something goes bad, you could be the worst team in football."
Although the Ravens are 5-0 and averaging 28 points game per contest since Ravens coach Brian Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and took over play-calling duties, they still haven't convinced Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh of any superiority.
Following a 26-20 loss to Baltimore on Nov. 5 at M&T Bank Stadium, Houshmandzadeh declared that the Bengals were still the better team and that Baltimore knew it deep down. He didn't back off those inflammatory statements this week, either. "I think we're better than them," said Houshmandzadeh, whose team is coming off a 30-0 shutout of the Cleveland Browns. "We'll find out."
Houshmandzadeh's remarks have already drawn a sharp retort from former NFL Defensive Player of the Year safety Ed Reed.
"Keep your mouth shut, man," Reed said. "Play football. I heard it. The game speaks for itself. If you think you're a better team, then come out and let's play football, man."
Since the first meeting with Baltimore, the Bengals have engineered a major turnaround.
Over the past three games, quarterback Carson Palmer has thrown nine touchdown passes with two interceptions as the Bengals have scored 95 points, averaged 439.4 yards per contest and converted 43.2 percent of their third downs.
Against the Ravens, Cincinnati was limited to 275 total net yards and converted just 1 of 10 third downs. Palmer's first and last passes were both intercepted and he finished with a season-low 52.4 passer rating.
"It literally hurts watching what we did against them last time, it's embarrassing," said Palmer, who has registered a 120.7 passer rating or higher in each of the past three games. "I feel like we've come a long way and made a lot of progress offensively. They're going to see a different unit, a unit they've seen before in the past, but not this past game."
However, the Ravens sport the NFL's second-ranked defense and have produced 39 sacks and lead the league with 20 interceptions.
They've benefited heavily from a fearsome pass rush that sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger nine times, including Scott's haymaker, and have 14 sacks over the past two weeks.
With Pryce creating inside penetration for a team-high 8 ½ sacks, including four over the past two games to free up defensive end Terrell Suggs for three sacks during that time span, and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan unveiling diverse blitz packages, the Ravens are haunting and harassing quarterbacks.
"That's a frightening thing," Pryce said. "It's frightening to me just to watch it. Somebody's going to get hurt. I'm not laughing. When you get to the quarterback enough times, yeah, his eyes will get wide."
The Ravens will need to get to Palmer early and often. Especially with All-Pro wide receiver Chad Johnson on the greatest tear in the NFL. Although the Ravens frustrated Johnson in the last meeting by holding him to four catches for 31 yards, so much so that he compared himself to a useless ornament, the flamboyant wideout has rebounded with 24 catches over the past three games for 573 yards and five touchdowns.
"This is the most talented offensive group in the league, in my opinion," Billick said. "Anytime they are standing on the sideline, that's a good thing."
Offensively, the Ravens will lean heavily on using running back Jamal Lewis as a battering ram against a front seven decimated by injuries. The Bengals are ranked last in the NFL against the pass, but have been especially vulnerable to Lewis in the past.
"We want to go out there and establish the run," center Mike Flynn said. "We want to put the ball in Jamal's hands and let him pound people and do his thing."
One year ago at this stage of the season, the Ravens were 3-8 amid rampant speculation about Billick's job security. Now, he's a potential Coach off the Year candidate and the Ravens can wrap up the division title by sweeping the Bengals.
"I think it's just knowing where we were last year at this time," Lewis said. "We don't want to go back there."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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