Ravens pound lowly Bengals into submission

CINCINNATI -- Regardless of whether it was linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis bulldozing helpless Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, wide receiver Mark Clayton befuddling a hapless defense with his acrobatic brand of football or bruising fullback Le'Ron McClain making defenders reluctant to take him on, the Baltimore Ravens delivered an authoritative statement.

In relentless fashion, the Ravens demolished the Bengals to engineer a 34-3 rout Sunday before a sparse crowd at chilly, damp Paul Brown Stadium. The Ravens' resolve matched the nasty weather conditions, improving to 6-0 against teams with losing records

"It was total domination," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "It says a lot about what kind of football team we are."

True to their word, the Ravens (8-4) were ultra-serious in their approach toward preventing the Bengals (1-10-1) from gathering any shred of hope of pulling off an upset. It marked the Ravens' first win here in four years as they gained a season-high 451 yards of total offense, and it's the Bengals' most lopsided defeat in eight years.

"It was a very methodical win," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's understandable to look at a game like this and say, 'That's potentially a game they will overlook,' but our guys just aren't there.

"If we do things right and we stay humble and keep working hard, we'll never be there. That's not a place you want to be. For our guys to come in here and take care of business, I think that speaks very highly of our team."

Instead of relaxing against an overmatched opponent they were expected to beat, the Ravens kept up the intensity in dispatching the Bengals. With their sixth victory in their past seven games, Baltimore remained one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North title race.

"We have great expectations, great goals and we're just trying to keep our eyes on the prize," center Jason Brown said. "We have to keep the big picture in mind. Nothing is given to us. At no point, can we feel like we've arrived. We're still very hungry right now."

The Ravens' defense forced the Bengals to tie a franchise record with 11 punts as Cincinnati didn't register a first down in 10 of its 14 possessions. The Bengals' six total first downs tied another ignominious team record established in 1992.

"I just think it's exciting the way we're playing football right now," Lewis said. "The thing I'm most impressed with is how the team kept their composure and understood it was a 60-minute ball game. Every game, we're maturing as a team."

Meanwhile, the Ravens' offense blended creativity and skill.

Clayton lined up left of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco in the third quarter with Baltimore leading 13-3. Then, he took a handoff and dashed toward the right sideline in a convincing bit of salesmanship that got cornerback Leon Hall to bite toward the line of scrimmage.

Clayton lofted the football adeptly with a 32-yard strike to fellow wide receiver Derrick Mason behind a flailing Hall for a touchdown.

It was the signature moment for the Ravens to complete their first sweep of the Bengals since 2002.

"Mark pulled up at the last minute and threw a perfect spiral," Mason said. "The one thing I want to know is, why did he run off like Joe0AMontana? I was looking for him to celebrate with me, and he was like Joe Montana after throwing the winning Super Bowl pass.

"They played a lot of man defense for some odd, strange reason. I don't know why. To me, that's disrespect to play man defense like that."

Clayton wasn't done with his heroics, turning in an electrifying one-handed 70-yard touchdown from Flacco that he snared with his right hand at the 30-yard line and scooted up the sidelines away from Hall. The rarely-utilized first-round draft pick caught five passes for a career-high 164 yards.

"I was just running," said Clayton, whose 45-yard diving catch in the first quarter set up the first of kicker Matt Stover's two early field goals. "I looked back and the ball was in the air. I just kind of stuck my hand out in the air."

Flacco was sharp in completing 19 of 29 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns, continuing his string of 11 touchdown passes with just two interceptions over the past seven games.

Besides connecting with Clayton, he found tight end Todd Heap in the back of the end zone in the first half for a four-yard touchdown pass.

The Ravens are becoming more willing to open up the offense, especially against shorthanded defenses that are missing multiple starters due to season-ending injuries.

"I think20you see they're starting to come alive and make all the plays, not just one out of so many," Flacco said. "I'm starting to trust them more, so I'm putting the ball where they're going to get it."

McClain rushed for a team-high 86 yards on 25 carries, pounding the Bengals' beleaguered front seven.

The Ravens led 13-3 at halftime and put it out of reach by the end of the third quarter with a commanding 27-3 lead.

"I think our motto is win by any means necessary," Mason said. "We're going to find a way. We started with the pass, then we wore them down and pounded the ball on them. That's balance.

"We're no longer waiting on the defense to do things for us. We're going to go out there and attack. That's the kind of mentality you have to have as an offensive team."

By halftime, the Bengals had just 109 net yards and four first downs as Fitzpatrick completed just five of his first 16 passes.

Filling in for injured Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer, Fitzpatrick completed just 12 of 31 passes for the game for 124 yards and a 51.0 quarterback rating and was sacked three times.

The Ravens held Cincinnati to a 4 of 28 conversion rate on third downs during the two meetings this year.

And Baltimore's defense outscored Cincinnati's offense 6-3.

"Once you get a swagger, once you get in a groove and understand what the other team is trying to do, you can anticipate the situations," linebacker Bart Scott said. "If you get behind, you can become predictable and the play fakes become less and less decisive. That allows the linebackers to play fast."

Bengals running back Cedric Benson produced only 17 yards on 10 carries.

And Cincinnati gained just 20 yards on 18 plays over their first six possessions. They failed on each of their seven third-down tries in the first half.

"We take pride in three-and-outs," Lewis said. "Just the way guys are flying to the ball, it's incredible."

The situation only got worse for Cincinnati when Palmer's younger brother, Jordan Palmer, entered the game in the final minutes. His first offering was thrown directly to strong safety Jim Leonhard, who gladly accepted the gift and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown to put an exclamation point on the victory.

"I couldn't believe he threw it," said Leonhard after scoring his first touchdown since high school. "I was shocked he threw it. It seemed like it took forever to get on it. It was like slow motion."

Now, the Ravens can turn their attention toward a prime-time Sunday night matchup against the Washington Redskins (7-5) at M&T Bank Stadium as they'll conclude the regular season with three of their final four games at home.

"We have to continue to play tremendous football," Scott said. "Playing so many road games early in the season was a burden for us, but we are reaping the rewards now.

"We want the road to the playoffs to come through Baltimore. What better chance than to play meaningful games at home?"


Quarterback: A

Joe Flacco completed 19 of 29 passes for 280 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 119.9 quarterback rating. He was accurate and composed20in exploiting a suspect, injury-riddled defense.

Running back: B-minus

Bullish fullback Le'Ron McClain is thriving in cold weather, grinding out a game-high 86 yards on 25 carries. Rookie runner Ray Rice contributed 41 yards on 11 carries. Willis McGahee has apparently been exiled from the game plan and didn't play at all.

Receiver: A

Mark Clayton turned in an epic performance, catching five passes for a career-high 164 yards, including a one-handed 70-yard touchdown catch. He also delivered a 32-yard strike to Derrick Mason (six catches, 91 yards) for a score. Tight end Todd Heap caught a touchdown pass.

Offensive line: C-plus

They did a solid job of opening up holes, but Joe Flacco was hit far too often against a defense relegated to starting nondescript backups on the line. Chris Chester, Jason Brown and Ben Grubbs had rough games while Jared Gaither and Willie Anderson played well.

Defensive line: B-plus

Trevor Pryce, Haloti Ngata, Marques Douglas and Justin Bannan prevented Cedric Benson from finding any running room, shutting him down for just 17 yards on 10 carries. Ryan Fitzpatrick was sacked three times, and Pryce had four quarterback hits and was particularly dominant.

Linebacker: B-plus

Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs cut off passing lanes, tackled crisply and helped limit Ryan Fitzpatrick to 12 of 31 inaccuracy for 124 yards and a 51.0 rating.

Secondary: B-plus

Star wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson were limited to a combined eight catches for 109 yards as Houshmandzadeh gained 46 of that total against a prevent defense late in the first half.

Special teams: B-minus

Sam Koch averaged 47.3 yards per punt. Matt Stover converted kicks from 27 and 21 yards to build a 6-0 lead. Yamon Figurs was quiet again in the return game, and the kick coverage remains shaky with kickoff returns of 43 and 32 yards allowed.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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