Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson has been seeking counsel from Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis for six years, to the point where the perennial All-Pros say they pray together on the telephone before most games.
If Lewis and his teammates on last season's top-rated defense can shut down Johnson when the Ravens and Bengals meet in Monday night's 2007 opener in Cincinnati, they also should be able to shut him up.
And shut him out of the end zone.
Johnson had 12 catches for 132 yards in two games against the Ravens last season, but he was held without a touchdown after scoring at least one in each of the 10 previous games against Baltimore.
As much as Johnson enjoys jabbing the Ravens - he said on a national radio show that "Ray Lewis will need help" and later told reporters in Baltimore that he planned to punch Lewis and safety Ed Reed in the mouth - he seems to have more respect for Baltimore's defense than any in the league.
"I always look forward to playing the best defense in the NFL," Johnson said on a teleconference Wednesday. "This is one of the few teams - there's probably only one other - where you really have to account for everybody on the field at all times."
The same can be said about how the Ravens will plan defensively for the Bengals.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the quieter half of one of the NFL's most explosive receiver pairings, had 13 receptions for 172 yards and two touchdowns against the Ravens last season. Houshmandzadeh missed a couple of practices this week with a knee injury but is expected to play.
After completing only 12 of 26 passes for one touchdown and 194 yards while also throwing two interceptions in a 26-20 loss at M&T; Bank Stadium last season, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer was 21-for-32 for 234 yards, including a touchdown on a 40-yard flea-flicker to Houshmandzadeh, in a 13-7 win at home.
Palmer, who returned in 2006 from a serious knee injury to become the first Cincinnati quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season, credits more than just his team's skill players for helping the Bengals hold their own against the Ravens since Marvin Lewis took over.
"We match up really well with them," Palmer said this week. "Our offensive line has played consistently well against them, especially in the past game. I can't think of too many times they have sacked me. Our offensive line always does a really good job and always plays well against them."
The Ravens don't discount what the Bengals can do up front, but they seem more concerned about what Palmer is capable of if given enough time to find his receivers.
"They've got, in my opinion, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, probably the best deep vertical threat in the NFL," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It's definitely a good challenge, so let's go."
Said Ray Lewis, "If you rate them up there with the top, they might be the best two or three in the league right now. So it's a challenge for us, opening up the year. Of course, we have the best defense in the league, so the bottom line is, we're going to find out, they're going to find out."
While the Ravens have to be aware of Cincinnati's receivers, Marvin Lewis knows what Baltimore's secondary is capable of doing.
"They have a fine secondary," Lewis, the Ravens' former defensive coordinator, said this week. "They've got guys who've been to multiple Pro Bowls and are playmakers on the field. They do a good job of running, coverage, and most importantly they do a good job of tackling."
In last season's win over the Bengals, Ravens cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister each had an interception, and on Rolle's pick Reed took a handoff for a 25-yard touchdown.
Johnson has joked that he has already put aside a special fund for the fines he will have to pay because of his end zone celebrations, and plans to make his first withdrawal after Monday night's game.
Having been kept out of the end zone by the Ravens last season, Johnson hopes to change that quickly in the 2007 opener.
"You're not going to stop me - period," Johnson said. "One person, two people, three, I don't care. You can contain 85 [his jersey number] for a certain play, but at some point throughout these four quarters, I'm going to make a play."