In an NFL defined by dramatic trend changes, the Bengals suddenly sport a revived passing game for today's kickoff at Ravens Stadium. That locale is where the Bengals haven't scored since Ravens quarterback Jeff Blake last threw a touchdown for Cincinnati (1-7) in 1998.
However, Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna scarcely resembles the man who threw three interceptions, two to All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, in last December's 16-0 Ravens win. Kitna and the Bengals were limited to 131 passing yards. Over the last two weeks, though, Kitna has completed 39 of 50 passes for six touchdowns, no interceptions and pristine passer ratings of 127.6 and 146.8.
"Kitna can beat you at any time," Ravens outside linebacker Peter Boulware said. "He's putting up big numbers, so we need to be on our toes."
Which Kitna will show up on Sunday? The relatively unknown Central Washington graduate who was benched in favor of Gus Frerotte and Akili Smith, or the confident quarterback who tossed four touchdown strikes in a 38-3 win last Sunday over the expansion Houston Texans? Cincinnati coach Dick LeBeau actually guaranteed that win.
"Any team is dangerous in the NFL," said cornerback Chris McAlister, who is nursing a sprained ankle and may not play. "To tell you the truth, dealing with a team like that is real dangerous. You have to be concerned. "I don't know what's going on. Kitna is Kitna and Cincinnati is Cincinnati, but they're playing good in my eyes."
The Ravens' 75-0 scoring gap over the last three games in Baltimore has characterized their dominance in the series with an 8-4 edge and seven victories in the last eight games.
Last year, Lewis returned Kitna interceptions for nearly 100 total yards. This season, Kitna's numbers are solid. With 68.1 percent accuracy, Kitna has 1,058 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions for a rating of 83.9.
"Yeah, I've been very impressed," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's very strong with his throws. He's very definitive. He knows what he wants to do with the ball."
The turnaround has been startling even to Kitna. Kitna refuted that sorry history in Baltimore with the pro athlete's oft-repeated creed of the past having no consequence on the present.
"It happened every week in college," Kitna said. "College was fun. Things like this don't happen in the NFL very often. When you talk about a quarterback who's completing 80 percent of his passes, that means all the receivers are exactly where they need to be."
Those receivers include former Florida State star Peter Warrick, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Michael Westbrook, the former Washington Redskins' first-round bust. Warrick leads the Bengals with 28 receptions. Westbrook caught touchdowns on both of his receptions last week against the Texans.
"I respect them because that's a good group of wideouts and all of them have big-play potential," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "It's going to be a track meet and we'll see what they do."
Billick is aware that his pass defense ranks 18th in the league and that, statistically, the Bengals have the 25th passing offense. Yet, Cincinnati looks different now, like a team with not,hing to lose and some respect to gain. Factoring bruising running back Corey Dillon (694 yards, four touchdowns) into the equation makes this horrifically-mismanaged franchise look formidable.
"They're feeling better about themselves," Billick said. "They're the ones that have to deal with that stigma, but we're certainly not going to take anything for granted."
The Ravens acknowledged the Bengals' explosiveness at receiver, with Billick saying those guys can take it to the house on any single play. He's certain that if Alvin Porter starts in McAlister's place that the second-year player will be targeted to see if he can stand up in man coverage.
McAlister expressed confidence in Porter's ability. He was reluctant to issue one of his trademark bold statements about the outcome.
"I can't guarantee anything," McAlister said. "I can't guarantee a shutout. I can guarantee that we're capable of winning. I guarantee nothing because nothing is guaranteed."