Maybe it's time for the Ravens to start sweating.
They didn't look like the team that routed the previously undefeated Denver Broncos a week ago, and they didn't look like a team gearing up for a playoff run.
The defense was exposed once again, giving up points on the first three series of the game to put the Ravens in an early 17-0 hole. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco struggled against the Bengals once again, throwing two interceptions (and possibly four if the Bengals defenders could catch) in leading the offense to a season-worst 215 yards. And Steve Hauschka missed a key fourth-quarter field goal once again, hooking a 38-yard attempt that would have cut the Ravens' deficit to a touchdown.
In getting swept by the Bengals for the third time in five seasons, the Ravens likely watched their hopes of winning the AFC North get brushed aside. Not only did the Ravens (4-4) fall two games behind Cincinnati (6-2) in the division, but it's also essentially a three-game gap because the Bengals now hold the edge in a head-to-head tiebreaker.
"I'm not going to be naive about it, it's very frustrating," running back Ray Rice said. "But in this league, if you stay frustrated, you'll be frustrated the rest of the season."
If you're looking for answers, you wouldn't find them in the Ravens' locker room after the game.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the unofficial spokesman for the defense, got on his cell phone when reporters approached him. Wide receiver Derrick Mason, the unofficial spokesman for the offense, declined comment.
Perhaps the numbers spoke loudest Sunday. The Ravens were out-gained 369-215. Bengals running back Cedric Benson became the first back since the Miami Dolphins' Ricky Williams (2002-2003) to gain more than 100 yards in consecutive meetings against the Ravens, totaling 117 rushing yards because the Ravens seemed to be playing two-hand touch instead of tackling. And the Ravens converted only one third down while Cincinnati had eight of them, which led to the Bengals' dominating time of possession (40 minutes to 20 minutes).
"It was a [expletive] day," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said.
It certainly was an awful start. The Bengals marched on drives of 73, 80 and 75 yards to begin the game.
The opening possession ended with Carson Palmer's 6-yard pass to Andre Caldwell, who has scored two of his three touchdowns against the Ravens. On that play, the Ravens rushed just three players, giving Palmer enough time to find Caldwell. He actually had enough time to count the hundreds of empty seats in the club level, too.
The second series was helped by two Ravens' pass-interference penalties on Ochocinco, the last of which came against Fabian Washington and converted a fourth-and-two. Four plays later, Benson scored on a 1-yard touchdown run.
The third drive was capped by a 23-yard field goal by Shayne Graham, which staked Cincinnati to a 17-0 lead with 7:45 left in the first half.
The Ravens explained that Cincinnati surprised them early by going away from its tendencies. The Bengals had an extra week to prepare because they were coming off the bye.
"In the first quarter, they gave us the same looks that we were seeing but gave us different plays," cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "We figured it out and adjusted, but it was too late. We had already given up too many points."
The Ravens managed only 44 yards in the first half, continuing a disturbing trend. In its past three games, the offense hasn't scored a touchdown in the first half.
"I don't think we had the urgency we needed to be successful," said Flacco, who finished 18 of 32 passing for 195 yards and a season-worst 48.3 quarterback rating. "You have to have some ownership to the offense, and we never really did that during the first half."
Down 17-7, the Ravens were rallying in the fourth quarter. But Hauschka missed a 38-yard field-goal try that would have closed the margin to seven points with 6:12 remaining.
It was only two games ago that Hauschka hooked a 44-yard attempt that would have won the game at Minnesota.
"I was disappointed with that kick," coach John Harbaugh said. "I think he can kick the ball a lot better than that, and he has. It's something that needs to be better."
During the Ravens' free fall - they have lost four of their past five games - the fix-it list has become lengthy.
But Rice knows how everything can be repaired.
"There is nothing that the coaches can do about this," he said. "Us as players, we have to go look in the mirror and evaluate each other."
The Ravens have to figure out a way to bounce back from their most troubling effort of the season.
Their previous three losses were by a combined 11 points. This one was by 10, and it felt like a larger margin of defeat.
"Don't hit the panic button just yet," linebacker Terrell Suggs said of the Ravens, who head to play at the Cleveland Browns on "Monday Night Football." "We're not out of the playoffs. It's not where we wanted to be or expected to be, but it's where we are. We have to be men and climb on out of it."
By the numbers 10Margin of defeat (in points) by the Ravens in Cincinnati. The Ravens' three previous losses were by a combined 11 points.
14 Points allowed by the Ravens in the first quarter. It matches the most they've given up in the opening period this season (the Minnesota Vikings scored 14 points against the Ravens on Oct. 18).
38 The distance of the field-goal attempt (in yards) that Steve Hauschka hooked left in the fourth quarter that would have cut the deficit to 17-10 with 6:12 left in the game.
44Total net yards by the Ravens' offense in the first half. The Ravens finished with 215 yards, which is a season low.
237 Total rushing yards by Bengals running back Cedric Benson against the Ravens this season. He became the first running back since Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis in 1996 to gain 100 rushing yards against the Ravens twice in the same season.