Fifteen weeks into the season, a familiar chill descended on PSINet Stadium.
Barricading the end zone with three interceptions inside their 20-yard line, the Ravens rode a once-again defiant defense yesterday to freeze out the ragged Cincinnati Bengals, 16-0, in front of a sellout crowd of 68,987.
Feeling the stiff breeze of playoff atmosphere invade their locker room, the Ravens rallied around an emotional pre-game speech by middle linebacker Ray Lewis to record their long-overdue first shutout and take a major step toward clinching a postseason berth.
The defending Super Bowl champions improved to 9-5 and have a two-game lead for the final wild-card spot with two games remaining. Cincinnati (4-10) lost for the seventh consecutive time this season and has dropped 37 straight games on the road against winning teams.
Lewis, the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, led the charge with 11 tackles and shut down the Bengals' last two trips into Ravens territory with interceptions at the 18- and 1-yard lines.
"Getting ready for the playoffs, we played the way we needed to play today," Lewis said. "It was a familiar feel, because it didn't matter what our offense did. When we stepped on the field, we truly believed they couldn't move the ball on us."
After taking a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, the Ravens relied on the resiliency of their defense for the rest of the game.
Lewis and cornerback Duane Starks ended two Cincinnati drives deep in Ravens territory in the second quarter with interceptions, and the Bengals didn't cross midfield in the second half until seven minutes remained in the fourth quarter.
"Shutouts are the standard for this defense," said Ravens defensive end Peter Boulware, who forced the Bengals' fourth and final turnover with a sack in the fourth quarter. "We felt like the old Ravens today."
Unlike the Ravens' previous two shutouts of Cincinnati here, this one had its trying times.
Their defense allowed the Bengals' Corey Dillon to run for 127 yards - the first 100-yard rusher against the Ravens in three years - and their offense produced just 92 yards in the second half.
But, in the end, the mistakes by the "Bungles" prevailed.
Cincinnati had embarrassing penalties like having 12 men on the field and embarrassing moments like quarterback Jon Kitna nearly coming to blows with receiver Chad Johnson on the sideline.
The Bengals' offense missed two potential touchdown passes to wide-open receivers because of a drop and an underthrown ball. Their defense failed to make a key interception in the third quarter because defensive backs Darryl Williams and Robert Bean ran into each other.
The Ravens' only touchdown drive - which put them ahead 10-0 1:25 into the second quarter - was paved by Cincinnati miscues. Bengals penalties accounted for 25 of the 80 yards on the possession.
"We're satisfied with the win," Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac said, "but we have to play better if we're going to do anything in the playoffs."
Ravens running back Terry Allen, who finished with 91 yards rushing, capped the lone touchdown drive with a 4-yard run. His first score since Oct. 7 came behind center Mike Flynn, who bulled over Cincinnati tackle Tony Williams.
"When you run the ball from 5 yards out, that's the best feeling," Flynn said. "When you get in goal line and you run the ball in, it is a statement."
The Bengals looked to answer that touchdown by marching 61 yards to the Ravens' 17. But Kitna's pass in the end zone fell short and into the hands of Starks.
After a Grbac fumble, Cincinnati drove again with similar results.
At the Ravens' 20, Kitna's pass ricocheted off the helmet of Ravens end Rob Burnett and popped in the air. Trying to avoid an interception, Kitna attempted to spike the ball into the ground but it shot into Lewis' arms.
"I didn't think," Lewis said. "I just reacted."
Lewis' 30-yard interception return set up a 29-yard field goal by Matt Stover to end the half with the Ravens leading 13-0.
"You're always coached to bat the ball down," said Kitna, who was 16 of 39 passing for 153 yards and three interceptions. "In that situation, if there was a little more time on the clock or we had another timeout, I might have tried to catch it, because I knew I was in a cluster of people. I thought that was the best thing to do."
Despite that lead, the Ravens' offense couldn't apply the finishing touches. Drives stalled as the Ravens failed to convert on their final eight third downs.
"I'm very disappointed that we had the opportunity to put somebody away and we didn't do that," said Grbac, who finished 16 of 30 passing for 181 yards and didn't throw an interception for the first time in seven starts. "The most important thing is we got the win."
The Ravens, who surrendered only 119 yards in the second half, sealed their first shutout since Nov. 19, 2000, with another turnover. After moving the ball to the Ravens' 7, Kitna saw his pass tipped by Ravens linebacker Jamie Sharper and fall right to Lewis again.
Lewis had nearly as many yards on interception returns (94) as Kitna had passing.
"I think Ray took this game personal," Boulware said. "He kind of took it on himself to say, 'I'm going to lead us and show us how to play great defense.' Everyone followed after him."
Now, with games at Tampa Bay and against Minnesota, the Ravens likely need one more win to clinch a playoff spot and begin their title defense.
"It took 15 weeks to get here, but this is the first game where we played a solid four quarters on defense," safety Rod Woodson said. "It's not how you start in this league, it's how you finish.
"We understand that our destiny is in front of us. If we want it, it's there to take."
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