Only days after Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson talked about hitting Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis in the mouth, the Ravens showed they could take their divisional rival's best shot and survive.
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.
This emotional showdown kept the record crowd of 70,792 on the edge of their seats in the second half, from a questionable coaching decision by Brian Billick to a near interception return for a touchdown by the Bengals to a field goal by Matt Stover hitting the upright before falling over the crossbar.
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.
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.
"The crazy thing is ... it happened again today," Rolle said.
The Ravens never reached the end zone again but their offense dominated the time of possession (37:24 to 22:36).
The only scare for the offense came with 8 1/2 minutes left in the game, when Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph nearly intercepted quarterback Steve McNair with no one between him and the end zone. But receiver Derrick Mason came from behind and threw Joseph down, forcing him to drop the ball.
"We wanted to jump on these guys fast and then control the ball, keeping their offense off the field," said McNair, who finished 21-for-31 for 245 yards and needed three stitches on his chin for a hit that occurred on a key 10-yard scramble in the fourth quarter. "I think our offense did a great job of getting first down after first down. That was our goal today."
The defense's goal was to eliminate the big plays, which popped up once again.
Palmer hit Houshmandzadeh for a 26-yard touchdown in the second quarter and then found Chris Henry for a 71-yard pass in the fourth quarter. The longest play of the game set up Rudi Johnson's 4-yard touchdown (which closed the deficit to 23-17) and caused some concern for the Ravens.
The Ravens had thought Henry had fumbled the ball, and on the return, two NFL Defensive Players of the Year (Lewis and Reed) lay on the ground injured.
Reed bruised his leg. Lewis, who got pushed back into the end zone by Johnson on the next play, took a knee from Reed on his spine and said he lost some feeling in his body.
Both expect to play Sunday.
"I'm healthy and I can walk," Lewis said, "so everything is good."
With their best record at the midway point in team history, the Ravens are in excellent shape heading into the second half of the season, even though their strangely subdued locker room would suggest otherwise.
"Don't get me wrong, we're happy about getting a win but we're very cognizant of the fact that we need to keep improving," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "We've got to be able to get that killer instinct and finish [these games] off."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun