In yesterday's theater of the absurd, the Ravens acted out a story of redemption.
Recovering from humiliating fumbles and ghastly special teams mistakes, the Ravens proved resilient with four turnovers and opportunistic returns, persevering in a bizarre, 38-27 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals before 69,024 at Ravens Stadium.
Ending a two-game skid, the Ravens (4-5) found new ways to the end zone and new hope in their roller-coaster season. Converted defensive end Adalius Thomas and little-used return specialist Lamont Brightful scored their first touchdowns to move the Ravens into a tie with the second-place Cleveland Browns and inch them within 1 1/2 games of the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It's a big win, and I don't expect anybody to understand that because of the perspective that's carried around with Cincinnati right now," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We answered the challenges across the board. We didn't panic. That's what I impressed is that we don't blink. We just handle it, which is uncommon for a young group of guys."
The Ravens prevailed despite safety Ed Reed's foolish fumble on a celebratory dance to the end zone, despite their kickoff coverage team's allowing Brandon Bennett to run up the middle untouched for a 94-yard touchdown and despite quarterback Jeff Blake's losing the ball at the Bengals' 1-yard line.
Similar blunders caused the Ravens' two-game slide. But yesterday, the Ravens refused to self-destruct and unleashed counterattacks against the bumbling Bengals (1-8). With the game tied at 14, which included a Cincinnati kickoff return for a touchdown, the Ravens' special teams answered with a timely combination punch.
Brightful's 54-yard kickoff return set up Matt Stover's field goal that put the Ravens back ahead 17-14 with 2:59 left in the second quarter. Just 96 seconds later, his 95-yard punt return for a touchdown staked the Ravens to a 24-14 lead.
The punt return was the longest in Ravens history and came on Brightful's fourth career attempt. It was a risky decision, because he fielded the punt at the Ravens' 5, but the rookie couldn't resist when seeing the open lane up the left sideline.
The score was as much retaliation as it was redemption.
"They got one on us, and that kind of upset me," said Brightful, the backup punt returner for most of the year behind now-injured Chris McAlister. "When they have a big play like that, I'm definitely looking to get something back. If I get one back, that kind of erases their big play. It makes it an even field again."
The Ravens could have seized control earlier if not for Reed's loss of control.
Halfway through the first quarter, Reed intercepted Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna near midfield and made a couple of dazzling cutbacks to create a clear path to the end zone. But 8 yards away from his first touchdown, the Ravens' first-round pick held the ball out to be flashy and T.J. Houshmandzadeh came from behind to swat the ball from Reed's right arm. After three Ravens failed to jump on the fumble, the Bengals' Peter Warrick recovered it in the end zone for a touchback to keep the score 7-7.
"I was like a kid in the candy store with no money," Reed said. "You can see the candy, but you just can't get it. ... I have to be smarter."
The Ravens showed they learned from Reed's mistake two series later.
Dropping back as a down lineman, Thomas stunned Kitna by breaking into the flat and picking off his throw. After juggling the pass twice, Thomas rambled 25 yards for the touchdown to give the Ravens a 14-7 lead less than a minute into the second quarter.
"You just run as fast as you can until you get into the end zone," Thomas said with a chuckle. "I just didn't want to stick the ball out."
Reed wasn't the punch line for the entire game.
Although Reed made slight amends with a key block on Brightful's touchdown, he truly saved face in the fourth quarter. Trailing 31-20, the Bengals took over deep in their territory when Blake tripped at the line of scrimmage and hastily pitched the ball off running back Jamal Lewis' leg, leading to the Ravens' second turnover.
Four plays later, Reed picked off Kitna when Cincinnati receiver Chad Johnson quit on his route. Reed returned the interception 21 yards, holding onto the ball securely before falling down at the Bengals' 19.
The Ravens needed only three plays to score, as Lewis bowled in from 3 yards with 6:14 left to increase the margin to 38-20, the biggest lead of the game.
"It wasn't going to happen again," Reed said. " I made up for it."
The Ravens beat the Bengals for the sixth straight time at home by being inventive and efficient.
They produced 293 yards off returns from punts, kickoffs and interceptions while their offense totaled 325 yards. Lewis re-emerged from a two-game hiatus with 135 yards rushing and two touchdowns to become the franchise's all-time leading rusher. And Blake remained composed against his former team, completing 16 of 24 passes for 183 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
"It's not about me trying to throw something in somebody's face," Blake said. "What matters is us winning football games here with the Ravens and me doing the things I need to get our team on the winning track the second half of the season. All that other stuff, it's not about me."
The defense kept its focus, too.
The Ravens played with only one starter from their Super Bowl-winning defense -- linebacker Peter Boulware -- because of injuries to linebacker Ray Lewis, cornerback McAlister and defensive end Michael McCrary. Although the defense gave up 372 yards, this relatively unknown group came up with the second-highest turnover total this season.
"I'm very impressed defensively because I looked out there and I didn't know who half of those guys were," Billick said.
Now, after conquering the mistakes of their past, the Ravens have a fresh look on their future.
"This win is satisfying after losing two straight," linebacker Ed Hartwell said. "This is the second half of the season and we're 1-0. We're done with our first season, and now we're in our second."
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun