CINCINNATI -- The Ravens stamped their mark on the AFC North yesterday, an indelible black-and-blue one.
From Jamal Lewis' first crushing run to the last hammering hit on Carson Palmer, the Ravens established themselves as the bullies of this division, pounding the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-9, before an often-cringing crowd of 65,575 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Missing five starters, the Ravens were the ones doling out the pain. Lewis ripped the Bengals for 186 rushing yards, and the belligerent Ravens defense barricaded the end zone by forcing four turnovers out of Palmer.
The Ravens (2-1), who are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for first place in the AFC North, ran over Cincinnati so convincingly it was difficult to tell if the stripes on the Bengals were their logo or tread marks.
"When we run the ball well and our defense is solid," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said, "we can't be stopped."
The re-emergence of Lewis breathed life into a rather flat offense. After being held to 119 yards rushing in the first two games of the season, Lewis delivered the fifth-best rushing total of his career, a performance highlighted by a pivotal breakaway run.
One play after Cincinnati closed within 17-9 midway through the fourth quarter, Lewis quashed any comeback hopes with a 75-yard touchdown dash that Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis described as "disheartening."
The run was a picture of power and speed in which Lewis changed directions twice, broke through two tackles and left the defense so far behind that he cruised the last 20 yards into the end zone.
After a week in which questions lingered about Lewis' focus (he has a Nov. 1 trial date on federal drug conspiracy charges), the reigning NFL rushing champion answered with explosive plays. He reeled off his four biggest runs of the season yesterday: 32, 18, 18 and 75 yards.
"That zone really came," Lewis said. "It was like everything was moving in slow motion."
The most important zone for the Ravens' defense was the red one.
The Bengals (1-2) had 398 yards of total offense yet only came away with field goals of 29, 47 and 26 yards because of the Ravens' ability to clamp down inside the 20-yard line.
Cincinnati made three trips inside the red zone and never got closer than the 8-yard line. The Bengals ran nine plays there, which resulted in six incompletions, a 3-yard run and two sacks.
"Whenever we're in the red zone, you can just hear the intensity of everyone out there on the football field," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "We're communicating with each other and making sure we get this right because we don't want them in our house."
Actually, it seemed like the Ravens were always in the neighborhood of Palmer, Cincinnati's first-year starting quarterback, who still threw for 316 yards.
But the Ravens' four sacks only told part of the punishing story. The heavy blitzes knocked down Palmer a dozen times and hurried him on six other throws.
"I liked him. Couldn't you tell?" said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who recorded two sacks. "Me and him were together all day."
The harassment of Palmer culminated in him throwing three interceptions and fumbling once and spoke volumes about the direction the Ravens seem to be headed.
One series after Adalius Thomas swiped the ball from Palmer on a sack, the Ravens continued the pressure in the second quarter when Ed Hartwell got him low and Cornell Brown jumped in his face. Palmer panicked and threw down the middle of the field, where safety Ed Reed made the first of his two interceptions near the end zone.
Reed's 40-yard runback to midfield set up Kyle Boller's 38-yard touchdown pass to Randy Hymes. The first touchown pass for Boller this season staked the Ravens to a 17-0 lead with 3:06 left in the first half.
"Carson seemed like a mentally strong quarterback," Suggs said. "But when you have people breathing down your neck, it's going to affect you."
Eluding the pass rush has become a risky proposition for Boller.
The second-year starter scored his first career touchdown with a 7-yard run in the first quarter and then lost the ball on two of his last three rushing tries.
Boller fumbled on a scramble 2 yards from the end zone and later lost the ball without being touched on a fourth-quarter run, which led to Cincinnati's last score.
"I'm still learning," said Boller, who finished 11-for-18 passing for 126 yards and ran for another 24 yards. "I've got to hold onto the ball sometimes."
Boller has the luxury of learning on the job with a running back like Lewis, who lumbered over the Bengals and into the NFL history books once again.
His seventh straight 100-yard game against Cincinnati tied Denver's Terrell Davis (who had the same string against Seattle from 1996 to 2001) for the longest such streak against one opponent. Lewis also became the fifth quickest to reach 5,000 yards, eclipsing that milestone in 51 games.
"He's an All-Pro running back, but we helped him a lot," Cincinnati linebacker Kevin Hardy said.
Even more help should be coming for the Ravens.
Besides outside linebacker Peter Boulware (knee), four starters -- tight end Todd Heap (ankle), receiver Travis Taylor (groin), nose tackle Kelly Gregg (knee) and center Mike Flynn (collarbone) -- all could be rejoining the team over the next three weeks.
"Once we get the pieces to this puzzle put all together," Baxter said, "it's going to be very scary, trust me."