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.
Using a hammering running game and a harassing defense, the Ravens took sole possession of first place in the 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.
The 180 yards represented his best effort since his record-breaking 295-yard day in Week 2.
"Once things weren't working for them and they weren't able to stop it," Jamal Lewis said, "all they could do was wear down."
The Ravens hogged the ball for 32 minutes, 56 seconds, compared with the Bengals' 27:04.
"If we have a team's scheme figured out and know what to expect, then it's really tough because we're big and physical," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "If we get a hat on a hat, it's tough for people to get around us and through us. When we're in a groove, it's tough to slow us down."
Winners of their previous four games, the Bengals couldn't get in a groove because their top receiver, Chad Johnson, was removed from the game plan.
With Chris McAlister taking him underneath and safety Ed Reed guarding him over the top, the AFC's top target was limited to two catches for 15 yards. Johnson, who called himself "7-Eleven" because he's always open, didn't get his first reception until the fourth quarter.
"In the first two or three series, you could tell he was frustrated," McAlister said. "Bottom line, 7-Eleven did get shut down."
In matching a season-high six sacks, the Ravens rattled Kitna, forcing the Most Valuable Player candidate into some old habits. After not throwing an interception in a league-best 137 straight passes, he was picked off twice.
"They kind of smelled blood," Kitna said, "and they came after it."
As the Ravens make their run toward the playoffs, they haven't really hit their stride.
Quarterback Anthony Wright, who was 8-for-19 for 145 yards, hurt the Ravens more than he helped them with two interceptions and a fumble.
Receiver Travis Taylor dropped a perfectly thrown pass at the 5-yard line. Jamal Lewis fumbled for the fifth time this season. And even a perennial All-Pro like Ogden got laid on his back by a pass rusher.
"I don't think we have hit the point where we're clicking on all cylinders," Taylor said. "We're still turning the ball over. We've always stopped ourselves. Look at what team has stopped us? No one. If we continue to get better, the sky is the limit."
Said Billick: "If we can just somehow find a way not to turn the ball over, that could get interesting."
What could be more interesting is how the rash of injuries will affect them.
"Down the stretch run, injuries are always a part of it," Billick said. "We'll deal with it, and hopefully we can survive."
"That special feeling is back again," said Ray Lewis, one of 13 players remaining from the 2000 Super Bowl team. "I'm not boasting. But seeing us in the playoffs can be scary."
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