After loss to Bengals, Ravens facing key game against Steelers on Sunday

Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith, right, tries to hold back coach John Harbaugh after Smith's offensive pass interference penalty negated an 80-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Ravens went into this two-game road stretch against the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers knowing that two victories would put them in ideal position to capture the AFC North title. They probably never even considered what two losses would mean, but they are forced to now.

A disappointing 27-24 loss to the Bengals and victories by the rest of the division have cranked up the sense of urgency for the Ravens as they begin preparations for Sunday's prime-time game against the surging Steelers.


The Ravens went into the Bengals game having won five times in six games, including three blowout victories, but they now need a win Sunday just to keep pace with the rest of the AFC North. At 5-3, the Ravens are in second place behind the Bengals (4-2-1). The Steelers are also 5-3 but they lost the first meeting with the Ravens. The Cleveland Browns sit at 4-3.

"We definitely played ourselves into position to compete for the AFC North championship and we find ourselves in position obviously for a playoff berth, which is the ultimate goal in terms of the bottom line," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "We want to get into the tournament first, we want to win the division next, we want to win the conference and then we want to win it all. That's what we're shooting for. We're 5-3. We're in position to do that. The main thing is we continue to improve. We're playing a great football team obviously by the way they played [Sunday]."


While the Ravens were boarding their team charter and heading home from Cincinnati, the Steelers were in the process of taking apart the Indianapolis Colts, beating them 51-34 in one of the best performances of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's career. Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes, and his 522 passing yards were the fourth most ever in a single game.

A red-hot Roethlisberger and an emerging group of Steelers receivers facing a struggling secondary that will be without Jimmy Smith — Harbaugh said that the team's top cornerback will miss a "few weeks" with a mid-foot sprain — is certainly cause for concern in a game that looks far more crucial for the Ravens than it did a couple of days earlier.

If the Ravens lose to the Steelers Sunday night at Heinz Field and the Browns beat the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-6), the Ravens could wake up next Monday in last place in the AFC North, the only division in the league that has four winning teams.

"This one was a big game for us, and we let it go,' Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said in the visiting locker room at Paul Brown Stadium. "[Pittsburgh] is going to be a big game for us now."

Ngata was among numerous Ravens who less than an hour after the deflating loss to Cincinnati were already looking ahead. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, considered the vocal leader of the team, said the Ravens are the "best in the league at getting over losses like this." He said on multiple occasions that the focus was already on preparing for the rival Steelers.

That certainly beats the alternative, which was dwelling on a game that the Ravens led 24-20 with under four minutes to go and had many chances to win.

However on the game's decisive drive, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton hit Mohamed Sanu, who beat defensive backs Dominique Franks and Terrence Brooks, for a 53-yard gain to move deep into Ravens' territory. Dalton finished the 10-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down.

"If we had played a little bit better, we would have won," Harbaugh said. "We had a chance to make the last play at the end and it didn't work out that way. We all thought if we had played better all the way through, we would have found a way to win the game earlier."


On offense, the Ravens were stopped on a 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the first quarter and Joe Flacco threw two third-quarter interceptions, leading to 10 Bengals' points. On defense, the Ravens couldn't get a key stop late in the game, an alarming trend the past two seasons, which has especially shown up against the Bengals.

The Ravens have lost three straight games to the Bengals and they had a fourth-quarter lead in two of them, and had the game tied in the final quarter in the other.

"They had momentum and we got it back," Ngata said. "We just couldn't finish."

A day later, Harbaugh was just as testy as he was in his news conference immediately following the game. He acknowledged that he sent a tape to the league of Steve Smith's pass interference call that negated what could have been an 80-yard game-winning touchdown pass, but he abstained from criticizing the league or officials.

"My opinion of it is obvious," said Harbaugh, who went on to call the play one of the greatest that he's ever seen. "It was a great play."

He also revealed little about the Ravens' plans moving forward without several injured players including Jimmy Smith, who was playing at an extremely high level, and rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro, who hurt his hamstring in the first half of the Bengals' loss.


The Ravens would love to add a cornerback before Tuesday's 4 p.m. trade deadline, but for now, they are planning to go with what they have. If they don't make any changes, they'll go into Pittsburgh with Lardarius Webb, Chykie Brown and Franks as their only healthy cornerbacks.

The Ravens held Roethlisberger, their long-time nemesis, to 217 passing yards and no touchdowns in a 26-6 victory over Pittsburgh in Week Two. But as the Colts found out Sunday, Roethlisberger is playing at a different level than he was earlier this season. Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 60 receptions and is second with 852 receiving yards and rookie Martavis Bryant has three touchdowns in the past two games.

"They've gotten better, but you expect them to get better. They have good players," Harbaugh said. "They're well-coached, tough as nails. They compete like crazy. They have a lot of pride over there. We understand all that, and we have respect for them. We play them all the time, and we know what they're about. We're very comfortable in that rivalry. We're very comfortable in that stadium. We understand what it takes to win there."