After ambushing the Bengals for two touchdowns in the first five minutes of the game, the Ravens withstood a late comeback for a 26-20 win yesterday at M&T Bank Stadium, a critical AFC North victory that extended their lead to two games over the self-destructing Bengals.
But the biggest surprise of the day came in the locker room, where one of the biggest victories of the season resulted in more contemplation than celebration.
"It's like we're happy but not satisfied," linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "We won but we know we have a lot of work to do. We gave up stuff that we shouldn't have given up. Our expectations are a whole lot higher than everybody else's."
In equaling their entire win total from last season at the midway point of this season, the Ravens (6-2) are at the top of their division but not at the top of their game.
Their offense lacked aggression in the second half. Their defense simply relaxed and allowed more big plays. As a result, a 17-0 lead in the first half dwindled to six points in the fourth quarter.
"The work that needs to be done is the work from going good to great," Ray Lewis said. "Those are the steps you have to take. At the end of the road, we're going to see where we're at."
Unlike two seasons ago - when quarterback Carson Palmer led the Bengals to a 17-point comeback at M&T Bank Stadium - the Ravens never lost their composure.
In the final two minutes of the game, Chris McAlister broke up Palmer's third-down pass and rookie Ronnie Prude came up big on fourth down.
Prude was able to go over T.J. Houshmandzadeh and get his hand on the ball, a play that the Bengals argued was pass interference. Houshmandzadeh was so angry that he ripped off his helmet and threw it.
"I knew they were going to come to me as well being the young guy out there," Prude said. "I felt like I had to make a play on it. I knew I came there at the right time. There's no doubt. I knew I made a great play on it."
After the Ravens got the ball back, Billick shockingly decided to throw the ball on fourth down with 25 seconds remaining instead of attempting a game-clinching, 45-yard field goal from Stover, who has not missed since October 2005.
With 18 seconds left, Palmer's desperation deep pass was intercepted by McAlister, which essentially ended Cincinnati's three-game win streak over the Ravens.
"I thought the odds were better [to run a play]," Billick said. "They were higher that they could go 80 yards for a touchdown ... with the time given than the possibility of a blocked field goal. That makes you take time off the clock, and this time it worked."
It was a bizarre ending to a game that featured one of the best starts in team history.
After Mike Smith forced a fumble on the opening kickoff, the Ravens jumped ahead on a 2-yard touchdown by Jamal Lewis.
Three plays after that, cornerback Samari Rolle intercepted a pass intended for Johnson - who was knocked down by Ed Reed - and returned it to the Cincinnati 25-yard line where Houshmandzadeh grabbed him by the leg. Reed took the handoff from Rolle and ran behind three teammates to the end zone, putting the Ravens ahead 14-0.
Rolle said he saw the highlight Saturday night of Reed taking an interception from a teammate at the University of Miami and running it back for the clinching touchdown against Boston College.