Game 2: Vocal Bengals trash champs

CINCINNATI — Role reversal ruled the Ravens' meltdown yesterday against the unlikeliest of foes.

After listening to a week's worth of the Cincinnati Bengals' banter, the usually outspoken Ravens were choked up in their response yesterday.The Super Bowl champions were only a shell of their trash-talking selves in ending their 12-game winning streak, sputtering in the red zone and turning the ball over six times in a humbling 21-10 loss before a sparse 49,632 at Paul Brown Stadium.

"They came out ready to play football and we didn't," Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "When you turn the football over and you don't play with emotion and passion, that's what happens to you.

"We've got to go back to the drawing board and look at what we did wrong, which was everything, and what we did right, which was nothing. Somehow we've got to get this thing fixed."

Can the mistakes be rectified in a week?

"I damn sure hope so," said Sharpe, who returns to his old stomping grounds in Denver on Sunday. "We have to get going. We don't make excuses and I'm not going to make excuses for us. We did not play the way I know we can play."

The Ravens (1-1) were silent with their new pass-happy offense, handing the ball over to Cincinnati twice inside the 10-yard line as well as helping the Bengals deliver the decisive blow.

Closing the lead to 14-10, the Ravens drove to the Bengals' 27 with about six minutes remaining, when they set up a quick rollout by quarterback Elvis Grbac. But Grbac was shielded by end Reinard Wilson and still threw blindly to the right side, where his top adversary was waiting.

Cincinnati linebacker Takeo Spikes, who ripped Grbac throughout the week for snubbing the Bengals' offer in free agency, tipped down the pass to himself and ran 66 yards for a touchdown. The return sealed the Ravens' first loss to anyone since Pittsburgh last Oct. 29 and the first to the Bengals (2-0) since 1997. No one relished the moment more than Spikes.

"We're building something here," Spikes said. "I just kept reminding everybody that he was the guy who said he didn't want to come here, that he had a better chance to win in Baltimore."

Spikes' rhetoric struck a nerve with the normally subdued Grbac, who has apparently circled the Dec. 23 rematch with the Bengals at PSINet Stadium.

"Say whatever you want to say," Grbac said, "but he's got to come to Baltimore, too."

After taking a 3-0 lead on Matt Stover's 38-yard field goal in the first quarter, the Ravens put together a marathon 17-play drive that ended in frustration rather than points just before the half.

The Ravens ran eight plays inside the 10-yard line and couldn't reach the end zone despite two near-misses. There was Patrick Johnson's catch in the end zone that was reversed by replay because he stepped out of bounds before the reception, and Todd Heap's juggling catch in the back of the end zone that didn't give coach Brian Billick a clear enough view to risk a challenge.

Instead, Grbac's 6-yard attempt to Johnson was tipped by three players before being pulled down by Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons.

"We get a chance to go up 10-0 and we come away with nothing," Sharpe said. "If you can't get the ball in from the 1, you don't deserve to win anyway."

The Ravens' misfortune carried over into the second half, where their two fumbles in the first four minutes were converted into the Bengals' only offensive touchdowns.

Subbing for injured Jermaine Lewis, Johnson took the opening kickoff -- his first return in three years -- and was stripped at the 21-yard line by Canute Curtis. Six plays later, Cincinnati quarterback Jon Kitna hit Corey Dillon on a 1-yard scoring pass for a 7-3 lead. It was the first time the Bengals were ahead of the Ravens in the past 221 minutes, 40 seconds -- nearly four games.

On the first play of the next Ravens series, Grbac found rookie tight end Heap in the right flat, where the ball was punched out by linebacker Steve Foley. Two minutes after that, Kitna ran a 2-yard quarterback draw out of the shotgun to increase the margin to 14-3 with 8:10 left in the third quarter.

Those back-to-back turnovers inside their 34-yard line completely stunned the Ravens.

"It's like a heavyweight fighter taking a punch in the face and trying to get back up and taking another punch," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "When you give them opportunities like that, a team just gets bigger and bigger."

The Ravens capitalized on Cincinnati's only turnover, a fumble caused by Alvin Porter's hit on Peter Warrick during a punt return. Grbac sensed the momentum beginning to swing when he found Johnson for a 2-yard touchdown catch that sliced the deficit to 14-10 early in the fourth quarter.

But the next two series ended in interceptions, one pass bouncing off Johnson's right shoulder and the other falling into the hands of Spikes for the game-clinching touchdown return.

"It has been for as long as this game has been played and as long as it's going to be played, turnovers are a major determinant in winning and losing," Billick said. "Our defense played very, very well, but you can't put any team on that short of field that many times and expect to hold up. You just can't turn the ball over."

The Ravens then rode the arm of Grbac heavily, but didn't give him much help.

Grbac completed 33 of a team-record 63 attempts while running ragged to avoid the Bengals' pressure and overcoming five drops by his receivers. ( Vinny Testaverde had thrown 51 passes vs. the Rams in 1996 for the old team record.)

The Ravens' offensive line, which had to replace injured right tackle Sammy Williams and benched right guard Kipp Vickers in the second quarter, struggled against Cincinnati's blitzes, forcing Grbac to hurry half his throws.

"It's very disappointing," Sharpe said. "We couldn't run the ball. We threw the ball OK and then we come back and Elvis has to run for his life. We can't win like that."

The Ravens also couldn't win despite the Bengals missing three field-goal attempts or committing eight penalties. A Grbac fumble on the goal line on the last play capped the day's frustration. The road ahead only gets tougher with a trip to Denver and a meeting with division rival Tennessee over the next two weeks.

Yet the Ravens are far from panicking. In fact, the swagger may be returning.

"We're going to be back," defensive end Rob Burnett said. "This team is too good and we have too many battle-tested veterans. We just hit a bump in the road. I'm very confident we'll be OK. You can quote that."