Touchdown! 'Curse over'

CINCINNATI - Pandemonium ruled for a few unworldly moments.

Quarterback Trent Dilfer danced in front of the Ravens' bench, index fingers shooting flares into the sky.

Split end Qadry Ismail and guard Edwin Mulitalo lifted the Ravens' unlikeliest hero, Brandon Stokley, above the gathering crowd in the end zone.

Coach Brian Billick, along the sideline, rammed both arms into the air to acknowledge the long-awaited touchdown.

When Stokley, a second-year wide receiver, turned a soft toss from Dilfer into an electric, 14-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, it ended the NFL's longest touchdown drought since the 1974 Chicago Bears went 22 quarters without one.

Better yet for the Ravens, it sent them cartwheeling to a 27-7 victory over the hapless Cincinnati Bengals yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium. A three-game losing streak, like the touchdown drought, was history.

"It was kind of funny," Dilfer said later, "because it was like we just won the Super Bowl. I had to sit back and say all we did was score a touchdown. I've scored a lot of touchdowns before.

"I was telling myself more than anything ... 'Let's celebrate, let's move on.' "

Said right tackle Harry Swayne: "I never knew there could be so much excitement over scoring a touchdown. It's been so long that I guess it's to be expected."

The final tally on the drought that consumed October: 21 quarters, 60 possessions, 322 minutes and 32 seconds.

"I was just like, 'Yes, the curse is over,' " Ismail said. "The Boston Red Sox are going to the World Series, and they're going to actually win it. That's how I felt."

On the Ravens' bench, the defense offered a silent "Amen."

"Everybody was like, 'Whew, thank you,' " said safety Rod Woodson. "It was really good to see that one go through and our offense get off the skid."

It was actually touchdown times three.

When the Ravens finally found the end zone, they revisited it twice more in the next 12 minutes. Before halftime, Dilfer clicked with tight end Shannon Sharpe on scoring passes of 18 and 19 yards.

Combined with Jamal Lewis' second 100-yard rushing game of the season, two more Matt Stover field goals and another suffocating performance by the defense, the Ravens (6-4) climbed into second place in the AFC Central, ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Next up are the first-place Tennessee Titans in Nashville. The Titans beat the Steelers, 9-7, yesterday to go 8-1.

"We didn't want to be 5-5 going into Tennessee," said left tackle Jonathan Ogden. "This is a win we needed if we wanted to make the playoffs. I still think we can play better. But it's a step in the right direction."

It took the Ravens three possessions and an assist from the defense to find the promised land.

In the waning seconds of the first quarter, penetration by defen-

sive tackle Sam Adams forced a fumbled handoff attempt by Bengals quarterback Akili Smith inside the Cincinnati 20.

Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary recovered at the 16. A third-down penalty against Cincinnati (12 men on the field) gave the Ravens a third-and-eight shot from the 14.

H angle return, a play designed especially for Stokley, restored normalcy to the franchise.

"When Brandon was going to be activated, Brian put that play in for him, because he was killing guys all training camp with that play," said Ismail, who collapsed twice on the field from low blood sugar before returning.

Stokley lined up in the slot to the right side, inside wide receiver Jermaine Lewis. While Lewis ran a post pattern, Stokley ran toward the center of the field, then broke out, behind Lewis. Bengals cornerback Rodney Heath bit on the inside move and never recovered.

Stokley, who was inactive in eight of nine previous games and hadn't played since last season, took the short pass at the 11 and beat Heath to the corner of the end zone.

"It was a good play," said Dilfer, who was 23 of 34 for 244 yards. "We knew it had a chance if we got the right coverage. As soon as he went in motion, I knew we had the coverage. It was just a matter of hitting the free throw.

"It was pretty much stealing."

Curiously, Dilfer hit 10 of 13 for 140 yards in the second quarter after his helmet receiver for sideline communication quit. Hand signals and voice instruction sufficed.

Dilfer went to Sharpe three times in the quarter, twice for touchdowns. A seam route opened for an 18-yard score on the heels of a 19-yard reverse by wide receiver Patrick Johnson.

Then, with two minutes left in the half, Dilfer scrambled out of the grasp of defensive end Michael Bankston and threw an improvisational, 19-yard scoring pass to Sharpe.

"When the guy got hold of me, I was fear-stricken," Dilfer said, eliciting laughs. "It was a matter of controlled panic. You try to do something. Sometimes it's ugly, sometimes it's good. That happened to be good."

Common sense prevailed on a day when Jamal Lewis rumbled for 109 yards and Sharpe had seven catches for 66 yards.

"My thought process going in was, you've got to let the superstars win games when you're in a funk," Dilfer said. "I wanted to get the ball to Shannon and Jamal as much as I could."

The defense did its part. Led by a fourth-quarter, fourth-down run stuff by tackle Tony Siragusa, the Ravens made it another long, futile day for Bengals running back Corey Dillon.

Dillon totaled just 23 yards on 16 carries. In two games and 28 carries against the Ravens this season, he has been tackled behind the line of scrimmage 10 times.

"The defense took Corey Dillon away and said if you're going to beat us, you'll have to beat us with Akili throwing the football," Sharpe said. "Today, it didn't happen."