Like the running lanes that were opened for Ravens running back Jamal Lewis yesterday, the Ravens' playoff road is clear.
Like their pass rush, the Ravens' relentlessness is growing more ominous each week.
AFC North with a 31-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium.
Lewis' 180 yards rushing and team-record three touchdowns helped stake the Ravens (8-5) to a one-game lead over Cincinnati (7-6) with three weeks remaining. A season-best five turnovers forced by the Ravens transformed the once-rejuvenated Bengals back to the Bungles.
This devastating profile has positioned the Ravens for the first division title in the franchise's eight-year history and can take them as far as they want to go.
"They learned that they can compete at a championship level with that kind of pressure on," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "All it does is create the opportunity for us to get something done that we had set our sights on in training camp."
Those sights are set on a return to the playoffs after a one-year absence.
The Ravens' last three regular-season opponents have losing records and have combined for a 12-26 record. This favorable stretch run could bring a home game for the first round of the playoffs as well as this city's first NFL division title since 1977, when the Colts captured the AFC East.
"It puts us in control," said linebacker Peter Boulware. "If we do what we're supposed to do, we'll be where we need to be."
The homecoming of Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis was turned into a housecleaning by the Ravens. The former Ravens defensive coordinator watched his old defense take over the game in an all-too-familiar way.
Over a span of 16 second-half passing plays by the Bengals, the Ravens roughed up quarterback Jon Kitna for four turnovers. A forced fumble by Terrell Suggs and an interception by Will Demps caused a 17-13 lead to expand to a 31-13 advantage in less than 10 minutes, as the Ravens won for a team-record fifth straight time at home.
"We wanted to go out there and dominate," Boulware said. "If that sends a message to the league or anybody else, that's good."
That message was clear: If the defense takes the ball away, the offense will make teams pay. All three turnovers forced in Cincinnati territory were converted into touchdowns.
The key one came with the Ravens holding a 17-13 lead midway through the third quarter, when Suggs burst past backup tackle Scott Rehberg and stripped Kitna of the ball. The rookie pass specialist not only grabbed the fumble, but the game's momentum as well.
Taking over at the Bengals' 17-yard line, the Ravens needed two Lewis runs -- 14 and 3 yards -- to crack the end zone.
Two series later, Boulware and Marques Douglas hurried Kitna into floating a pass over his receiver and to Demps. His 54-yard interception return handed the ball over to the offense at the 21-yard line.
Once again, two Lewis runs guided the Ravens to the end zone for their fourth touchdown in five inside-the-20 opportunities. Lewis' third score pushed the Ravens out to a 31-13 lead with 11:48 left in the game.
"When Jamal is running the football like that and our offense is capitalizing off our turnovers, we're hard to beat," linebacker Ray Lewis said.
On a day when the swirling winds reached 20 mph, the Ravens relied on Jamal Lewis. The league's leading rusher galloped for 69 yards in the first quarter, 15 in the second, 53 in the third and 43 in the fourth.
Ravens 31, Bengals 13
Game 13: Ravens rush past Bengals
J. Lewis gains 180 yards, defense stingy as team stands alone in first place; 'That special feeling is back'; Ravens in good position to win first division title in franchise's 8-year history
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