Ravens, Bengals square off in battle for 1st

OWINGS MILLS -- The reality and the perception about the Cincinnati Bengals has suddenly changed, and their unexpected emergence as a surging contender has triggered today's AFC North showdown against the Baltimore Ravens.

Instead of being a perpetual punch line for Jay Leno monologues, the formerly downtrodden, trouble-prone Bengals (3-1) are now the proud owners of a three-game winning streak and are gaining a reputation for being masterful in the clutch as they take on the Ravens (3-1) today at M&T Bank Stadium.

Supremacy in the division is at stake as the winner will own sole possession of first place, breaking the current deadlock.

"They're still explosive, but more physical than they were before and I knew things would eventually turn around for them," free safety Ed Reed said. "We expect nothing but their best. This game is huge. Here we come. It's going down, man."

Although the Bengals are just one deflected Brandon Stokley touchdown catch away from being undefeated as his score boosted the Denver Broncos to a 12-7 win over Cincinnati to start the season, they have managed to defeat the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers as well as edging the Green Bay Packers and the Cleveland Browns by a combined 13 points.

The Ravens swept the Bengals last season by a combined score of 51-13 as they ran roughshod over them with a total of 376 bruising rushing yards on 89 carries, but this is a new season. And the Bengals have apparently learned how to win after going 4-11-1 last season in losing their first eight games.

"They're just better than they were a year ago in terms of their talent and they're healthy," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Obviously, they're on a roll. It's a really good team with a lot of talent, playing very hard."

With franchise quarterback Carson Palmer healthy again, flamboyant wide receiver Chad Ochocinco no longer pouting, a running game with more muscle than usual led by Cedric Benson and an improving defense led by NFL sacks leader Antwan Odom and hard-hitting rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga, it's a new day in Cincinnati.

"You can't go into the season and expect one team to be one way," tight end Todd Heap said. "It's always going to be different. Last year, everybody was expecting them to be good. I think this year, they've got a lot of the same guys and they've added some good players as well.

"They've very talented. We always expect them to play well, especially against us. You've seen how they've played this season. They've played every team tough. Marvin Lewis has them going this year."

It feels a bit early to declare the Bengals as transformed after four games, but things change quickly in the NFL.

The Ravens are a perfect example of that phenomenon.

They were coming off a 5-11 campaign a year ago that cost former coach Brian Billick his job and ushered in the Harbaugh era that launched with a surprising march to the AFC championship game.

So, Lewis, the former Ravens defensive coordinator and Finksburg resident, is keeping it all in perspective.

He laughed when asked about the heightened relevance of this early-season clash.

"That would be fleeting," Lewis said. "If we were playing a five-game schedule, I'd feel good about that."

The Ravens are looking to rebound from an emotional 27-21 loss to the New England Patriots, a setback where they felt the officiating affected the outcome of the game as they were flagged for roughing the passer penalties for hits on star quarterback Tom Brady that set up a pair of touchdowns.

Now, the Ravens are looking to resume the wave of momentum they were riding before losing their first game of the season at Gillette Stadium.

"We're looking forward to playing the Bengals," Harbaugh said. "You try to take the emotions and put them aside and learn the lessons that we can learn from whatever happened in the game and see if we can become a better team. We're going to have to be a better team than we were last week to have a chance to beat this team."

The Ravens' third-ranked offense isn't expected to have left offensive tackle Jared Gaither in the lineup due to a neck injury suffered against New England.

So, rookie Michael Oher will move over to the left side and Marshal Yanda will step in on the right side.

Although Oher is a precocious young blocker, that matchup doesn't necessarily bode well against Odom, who's tied for the NFL lead with eight sacks.

"You watch Odom and how many sacks he's had, and then you watch their young linebackers and they're flying around making plays as well," Heap said. "They're not playing as young as they are. It's going to be one of those types of games that it's good to get those early in the season, and you just try to prepare yourself and carry that on throughout the season."

Meanwhile, the Bengals have to contend with an explosive Baltimore offense averaging 413.5 yards of total offense and 31.0 points per contest.

Quarterback Joe Flacco has already passed for 1,103 yards with eight touchdown passes and three interceptions for a 94.3 quarterback rating.

"He's a quarterback who has an open offense now," Bengals defensive tackle Tank Johnson said. "He's able to do a lot more things now. He's got a few more toys to play with. He's like a kid in a candy store."

The Ravens have a lot of respect for Palmer, a pocket passer with high-powered arm strength and veteran savvy.

"Barring injury, he's just one of the special talents," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "The guy can throw a football from anywhere on the field. He's back to being Carson. He's playing the game the way Marvin wants him to play it, managing it very well."

Lest he be forgotten, Ochocinco is making a lot of noise.

He has already challenged linebacker Terrell Suggs to a boxing match and he has guaranteed to score a touchdown.

"When I score, which you know I will do, I have a special one," Ochocinco said. "It's called ‘The Ricky Bobby,' for those of you who saw ‘Talledega Nights.' It should be really nice. It's a rule breaker. I did send the NFL the fine money ahead of time.

"Make sure you tell them, defense, they're going to kiss the baby. No disrespect."

When it comes to the Bengals and the Ravens, some things never change.

And the mouth of Ochocinco is as much of a constant as the tiger stripes on the Bengals' helmets.

"Same Bengals, same Chad, still talking crap in the media and all that stuff, which is a lost cause with Chad," Reed said. "We expect nothing less than their best. I'm sure Cleveland and Pittsburgh, as much as they hate us, they've got to root for us."


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