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With win over Bengals, Ravens could take control of AFC North

Ravens running back Bernard Pierce hurdles Bengals cornerback Terrence Newman at M&T Bank Stadium in the teams' first meeting this season, a Cincinnati win.
Ravens running back Bernard Pierce hurdles Bengals cornerback Terrence Newman at M&T Bank Stadium in the teams' first meeting this season, a Cincinnati win. (Mitch Stringer / USA TODAY Sports)

It's not yet late December or early January. There's no playoff berth on the line, as there was when the Ravens last visited Paul Brown Stadium 10 months ago. There's no division title and first-round postseason bye to secure, like there was when the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals met in the "Queen City" in the final week of the 2011 regular season.

And if you are to believe the words of Ravens players this past week, avenging a rare home loss to the Bengals seven weeks ago is the farthest thing from their minds. Yet no Ravens player made even the slightest effort to diminish the magnitude of Sunday afternoon's game against the Bengals.

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"I think it's obvious, but that doesn't mean that anything is given to you down the road," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. "We just have to go out there and play this week the way that we expect ourselves to play and see what happens. I think if we go out there and we play the way we expect ourselves to play, then it'll be a good outcome, and that's all we can really focus on to this point."

Winners of four of their past five games since the season-opening loss to Cincinnati, the Ravens (5-2) have convinced many that they are the class of the AFC North. The next two weeks, starting Sunday against the second-place Bengals (3-2-1) and continuing with a Nov. 2 road game versus the third-place Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3), they'll have an opportunity to prove it, while putting a stranglehold on the division.

"I think the way things are shaping out, it can benefit us really well, and I think also it can hurt us," said Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith. "So, this game is the most important game this week, this year. I think after we play them, it's another very important game. So, I think the next couple of weeks are very, very important for us."

Ravens players and coaches have long maintained that the AFC North is the most competitive division in the NFL. This year, they have evidence to support that claim. It currently is the only division in football that doesn't have a team with a losing record. The first-place Ravens and last-place Cleveland Browns are separated by 1 1/2 games.

Veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata summed up the Ravens' sense of urgency by saying: "If we want to be at the top of the division, we definitely have to win these games. It's rivalry week for us for two weeks."

Two wins against their chief AFC North rivals and the Ravens will enter their final seven regular-season games with at least a two-game division lead, and only one division game remaining. A loss Sunday, however, would mean the Bengals would sweep the season series from the Ravens and hold the tiebreaker advantage if both teams happen to finish in a first-place tie.

There's a lot of football ahead before they start worrying about such matters, but the Ravens understand that they could set themselves up nicely for the final month and a half of the regular season by beating two teams that have struggled lately.

"We need to scratch, claw, do whatever we have to do to go after the division," said Ravens middle linebacker Daryl Smith. "Whoever else wins or loses, it's right there for us and we have to focus on that."

The Ravens' two-year reign atop the AFC North was ended last season by the Bengals, who finished 11-5 before experiencing another playoff flameout. Not only did the Bengals capture the division crown, but they ended the Ravens' season, beating their rivals, 34-17 in Week 17, when a victory would have sent the Ravens into the playoffs for a sixth straight year under John Harbaugh.

The Bengals were viewed by NFL pundits as the favorite to win the division again this season and their front-runner status was reinforced when they beat the Ravens, 23-16, in the season opener at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 7.

However, Cincinnati hasn't won a game since its 3-0 start and the Bengals were shut out by the Indianapolis Colts, 27-0, last Sunday. Their top offensive player, wide receiver A.J. Green, remains sidelined with turf toe, one of myriad injuries the Bengals have been dealing with early this season. Uncharacteristic of Marvin Lewis-coached teams, their defense is ranked next-to-last in the league in yards allowed per game.

Meanwhile, the Ravens come into the game having outscored the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons by a combined 77-24, boasting a red-hot offense and the No.1-ranked scoring defense, and threatening to run away with the division.

"There's going to be no hiding," the Bengals' Lewis said when talking about the ramifications of Sunday's game on the standings. "Everyone is going to know right where everybody is."

It's far too premature to call the AFC North a two-team race. The Steelers rebounded from being beaten soundly by the Browns two weeks ago with a comeback victory over the Houston Texans on Monday night. Despite a crushing loss to the previously winless Jacksonville Jaguars last week, the improved Browns remain in the thick of things with a 3-3 record and a home matchup with the winless Oakland Raiders set for Sunday.

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After next Sunday's date with the Steelers, the Ravens will have only one division game remaining, a Week 17 contest against the Browns at M&T Bank Stadium. By then, who knows what — if anything — will be at stake?

Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said he fully expects things to go "down to the wire" because that's the way it always seems to happen. However, he understands the importance of banking wins now, especially against division rivals.

"I personally feel like we have unfinished business with everybody," said the former University of Maryland standout. "At the end of the day, each and every team is in the way of where you want to be. They can deter you, they can knock you off track of where you want to be. We know what to expect with a team like [the Bengals]. They earned last year, but that was last year. We're two different teams since last year and we have to go out and prove that we deserve that crown, as well as the Steelers and Browns. That's what we're all battling for."

Three consecutive years, the Ravens have ended their regular season at Paul Brown Stadium. In the 2011 campaign, they beat the Bengals, 24-16, to secure the AFC North title and a first-round bye. In 2012, the game essentially meant nothing as the Ravens had already clinched the division and were set for a home wild-card game against the Colts, so Harbaugh played most of the backups in a 23-17 defeat.

Last year, the Ravens walked out of Paul Brown Stadium knowing that their Super Bowl defense was over and their offseason had begun far earlier than any of them had expected or hoped.

Harbaugh acknowledged this week that there is no dramatic win-or-else scenario attached to the latest meeting. However, the game, coupled by next week's matchup in Pittsburgh, presents the Ravens with a rare opportunity to take control of the division.

"It's a big game, period," said cornerback Lardarius Webb. "It doesn't matter because they got us the first game, at our house — that's not big. It's big because it's a divisional game. It's big because they're a great team in this AFC North and we have to beat them. They're a good squad and they've showed in the last two years that they're the team to beat, so it's an important game."

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Baltimore Sun reporters Jon Meoli and Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.

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