For seven years, Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco tormented the Ravens together.
Palmer, a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback, compiled a 9-4 record against the Ravens. Only once, in 2008, did the Ravens sweep the season series against the Cincinnati Bengals with Palmer wearing tiger stripes and tossing touchdown strikes to Ochocinco.
Palmer is now the Oakland Raiders' starter. The Bengals dealt the outspoken Ochocinco -- along with his ego, declining skill set and Twitter account -- to the New England Patriots in late July. And Cincinnati, which had a 4-12 record in 2010, began this season with six new starters on defense.
Despite that roster overhaul, the Bengals visit M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday with a 6-3 record, identical to the Ravens'. So what has been the secret to the quick turnaround?
"We have better players," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said bluntly.
Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green stepped into the starting lineup in Week 1 and have emerged as NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates.
Dalton, a second-round draft pick out of Texas Christian, has thrown 14 touchdown passes, the most by a rookie quarterback through nine games since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Green, the former Georgia star who was the fourth overall pick in April's draft, leads all NFL rookies with 41 catches, 635 receiving yards and six touchdown receptions. But Green, 6 feet 4, is doubtful with a knee injury he suffered in last week's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. If he misses Sunday's game, receivers Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson, and second-year tight end Jermaine Gresham, will try to pick up the slack.
"A.J. is definitely playing ball the way a professional athlete is supposed to, the way a first-round draft pick is supposed to," Ravens safety Ed Reed said. "Cincinnati always has that go-to receiver like Chad used to be. ... [Green is] definitely someone to be reckoned with."
Dalton and Green have already teamed up for the fourth-most touchdowns (five) for a rookie quarterback-receiver tandem since 1970. The record is nine.
"I think that if you watch [Dalton] and this young boy, Green, that they have over there, that's kind of a one-two punch that they really like right now," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Marvin, I think he's done a great job. He has those boys playing at a very high level."
Dalton has heard the comparisons to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who coolly steered the Ravens to an 11-5 record and two postseason victories in his rookie season in 2008.
"The biggest thing is not trying to have too many negative plays," Dalton said, "going out and managing this offense and taking the shots when we think they're there."
The Bengals have turned the ball over just 10 times this season -- nine interceptions of Dalton and a fumble -- which is tied for the fourth-lowest total in the NFL. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this week that protecting the football is the primary reason the Bengals have been one of the NFL's surprise contenders this season.
Cincinnati has attempted to put Dalton in manageable situations by pounding defenses with running backs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott, and a powerful, veteran offensive line. That philosophy hasn't changed under Marvin Lewis, even if the personnel have.
"They stick to what they're good at," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "It's the same offense every week, and they're just relentless in what they do. They are a resilient team."
Cincinnati's resolve could be at a breaking point, though. Cornerback Leon Hall, an All-Pro player in 2009, tore his Achilles tendon last weekend and is out for the rest of the season. Johnathan Joseph was one of the defensive players who departed last summer, which leaves newcomers Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings as the team's starting cornerbacks.
The Bengals rank in the top 10 in many defensive categories, including scoring defense, pass defense, run defense and total yards allowed. And their zone coverages -- including a heavy dose of the cover-2 scheme -- have given Flacco fits in seasons past.
"We'll see two different [cornerbacks], obviously," said Flacco, who has thrown 150 passes in the past three games. "But they are a good defense, and they are going to have guys out there that are ready to play. They are going to run their scheme."
The Bengals had won five straight games before last week's 24-17 loss in Cincinnati.
"Momentum is probably the most important thing in the NFL," Ravens safety Haruki Nakamura said.
And the Ravens, who are coming off a deflating 22-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, say they are wary of the Bengals and all their new faces -- especially Dalton and Green, who hope to renew an old tradition of tormenting the Ravens on Sunday.
"They've beaten us plenty of times," Harbaugh said. "We've always had a ton of respect for the Bengals. It's a big rivalry game for us. It's one of the toughest games we play every single year -- one of the most physical games we play -- and that's what we're gearing up for."
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