The Bengals rode the Wayback Machine on Sunday, all the way to last season. Grumble about the tactics, if you want. The win looks the same. You say the offense looks dysfunctional. The victory says the offense was patient. You say Carson Palmer isn't using his new toys. The win says too much playtime isn't good for the bottom line. At least we can agree on the defense. The defense was magnificent.
Having coached defense in Baltimore and faced the Ravens too many times to count as Bengals coach, Marvin Lewis knows how to beat Baltimore. So does Palmer, who has beaten the Ravens nine times in 12 tries.
This is how: You keep their defense from taking your ball. You don't force the action, for the same reason a boxer doesn't slug it up with a puncher. The Ravens make an interception, recover a fumble, Ray Lewis starts sounding like a church deacon halfway between fire and brimstone and before you know it, Baltimore has suckered you into a standing-eight count.
No, what you do is grind on offense, take what you can get and let your defense assert itself.
Put in simpler terms: The Bengals 15-10 win happened because the defense was all world, and the offense didn't screw it up.
"I wish it was 100 percent perfect, but it wasn't," suggested Marvin Lewis, who then proceeded to discuss the offense. Well, OK. There is only one Mona Lisa. And perfection left the house when Derrick Mason caught a 31-yard bomb from Joe Flacco, for Baltimore's only TD.
But other than that?
Flacco knows what it's like to throw footballs in a phone booth. His receivers understand how difficult it can be to catch a pass with defensive backs clinging to them like Saran wrap.
"Other than the TD, I didn't see anyone open all day," I suggested to Adam Jones.
"That's a compliment," said Jones. "I hope you tell Zim that."
That would be Mike Zimmer, defensive coordinator, who regained his stripes Sunday, after a befuddling loss at New England. For whatever reasons, stung pride among them, the Bengals defenders were on it Sunday, all day. Film study success was obvious; the Bengals seemed to know the Ravens receivers routes as well as the receivers.
The Bengals also played with an aggression that lacked last week. "Without a seat belt," Jones said. Some said it was because Zimmer cut back on the book work this week. Athletes are better when they react than when they think.
"We were comfortable this week," was how safety Chris Crocker put it. "We've played these guys a lot. We know what to do. No trickery. What they saw was what they got."
It would be instructive to cite chapter and verse here, but the whole game was played that way. The numbers will suggest Joe Flacco was awful ÃÆÃâÃâÃâ one TD pass, four interceptions, a QB Rating of 23.8. But he didn't have much choice. Awful was what the Bengals had in mind for him. And unlike last week, they delivered.
"Zim put together a perfectly designed game plan," Dhani Jones said.
Meantime, Palmer's offense plodded. For the second week in a row, it faced a young, mediocre secondary. Also for the second straight week, not much resulted on the scoreboard. Five field goals, two of them thanks to turnovers. Four false starts, a couple dropped passes, one wide-open-in-the-end zone Chad Ochocinco who wasn't found. Had the Ravens discovered the end zone once more, anti-Nine rants would be filling the airwaves all week.
Even Palmer fights frustration. "I'm frustrated right now," he said, postgame. "But you can't let it get to you. You can't try to fit the ball into a certain hole, just to get a receiver going. You've got to play a field position game" against Baltimore. "You have to settle, be OK with field goals."]
And believe your defense can play the way it did Sunday.
The Bengals get a schedule breather the next three weeks, and a bye after that. Winning one of the first two was critical, given the schedule after the next month. The next three games are eminently winnable — at Carolina and Cleveland, at home with Tampa. A 4-1 start would be a nice seat belt for the rough road beyond.
Meantime, Sunday put the bus back on the road. A smart, tough win, if not sexy at all. Sounds like most Bengals-Ravens games.