Blake outduels Bengals

11-10-02, 4:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

BALTIMORE _ After a theater-of-the-absurd first half, the Bengals needed a defensive stand in the second half and didn't get it as old friend Jeff Blake engineered two touchdown drives in the Ravens' 38-27 victory.

Meanwhile, Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna couldn't put together a third straight flawless game with three interceptions, the last one coming with about seven minutes left by Ravens free safety Ed Reed at the Bengals 19 and Cincinnati trailing, 31-20.

The last of the Bengals' four turnovers translated into running back Jamal Lewis' two-yard touchdown run, capping a huge day in which he ripped off 135 yards on his 21 carries.

"We ran the ball and kept their offense off the field", said Blake, who hit 16 of 24 passes for 183 yards. "we didn't really have to work long because we were able to run it so well. Their offense did a good job of movin it too."

On 21 carries, Bengals running back Corey Dillon had his third 100-yard game in the last five with 102 yards, and wide receiver Chad Johnson had the Bengals' first 100-yard receiving day of the season with 110 on seven catches.

Kitna finished 28 of 41 for 272 yards, but the Bengals couldn't overcome the turnovers, more shoddy special teams play, the running of Lewis, and Blake's efficiency.

The loss dropped the Bengals to 1-8, guaranteeing their 12th straight non-winning season.

"The interceptions didn't come off confusion or anything like that", Kitna said. " I'm frustrated because you can't make 4 turnovers on the road and win."

Everyone wondered what Blake would do in Cincinnati with a running game and a consistent tight end. On Sunday, they got a pretty good idea. He didn't long bomb them to death, but Blake's use of tight end Todd Heap (four catches for 65 yards) were big-time effective.

When the first of two Neil Rackers' second-half field goals cut the lead to 24-17, Blake started a nine-play, 80-yard TD drive with a 29-yarder to a wide open Heap over the middle. Two straight passes for 22 yards to wide receiver Travis Taylor, five straight runs by Lewis for 28, and a one-yard touchdown flip to Taylor behind cornerback Artrell Hawkins with less than three minutes left in third quarter decided it for a 31-17 pad.

The Bengals learned after the game that defensive tackle Oliver Gibson is lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.

If they had brought the circus to town Sunday, it couldn't have been a wilder first half than what transpired here at Ravens Stadium.

Before a full house of 69,024, the Bengals got burned for a touchdown via an interception and punt return and surrendered a field goal to a long kickoff return in falling behind 24-14 in a half that featured 455 yards that didn't come from scrimmage. At the end of game and when the dust had cleared, there were 547 return yards.

The Bengals countered with Brandon Bennett's 94-yard kick return for a touchdown the first time they touched the ball, but blew a chance to cash in on his 45-yard return with 1:15 left in the half.

Bennett, who set a club record with 228 yards with 6 kickoff returns, put the Bengals at the Ravens 42. But the Bengals couldn't even get a field-goal attempt. Instead of spiking the ball with 22 seconds left on second-and-1 from the Ravens 8, the Bengals chose to hurry up and run a play to running back Corey Dillon.

Defensive end Tony Weaver caused a fumble on the one-yard loss and free safety Chad Williams picked it up. After Bengals left guard Matt O'Dwyer tackled Williams, Williams wandered down the field backward into the end zone with the ball, but the replay refs came to their senses and ruled the play down.

The Ravens bolted to a 24-14 lead when Lamont Brightful, returning punts in place of the injured Chris McAlister, zipped 95 yards up the Ravens sideline for a touchdown, the longest punt return ever against the Bengals. The Ravens did a great job using two men to wall off special teams ace Ron Dugans as the contain man to form an alley on the outside.

In the middle of the second quarter, Brightful ran a kickoff back 54 yards to set up Matt Stover's 33-yard field goal for a 17-14 lead.

In dueling with his ex-mates, Blake had a crisp, coherent half in which he

produced 10 points on nine of 14 passing for 102 yards, but kept the long ball to the minimum. He had some help from running back Jamal Lewis, who popped a big 31-yarder through an inside blitz on his way to 65 yards on 11 carries.

Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's flirtation with perfection came to a sudden and jarring end early in the game. But he responded by finishing the half with nine straight completions on 11 of 15 passing for 131 yards and and two interceptions. Kitna did get the Bengals into a 14-14 tie when he uncorked the longest touchdown pass of the season, a 39-yarder to wide receiver Chad Johnson streaking inside cornerback Gary Baxter on a post.

Johnson caught four balls for 77 yards on the drive, including a marvelous diving backward catch for 15 on a ball Kitna threw behind him. Replays showed the ground may have helped him catch it, but the Ravens didn't challenge. Dillon averaged 5.2 yards on his 11 carries in the half for 57 yards.

As crisp and as in control as Kitna looked the past two weeks, he looked confused and tentative in throwing two interceptions that should have gone for touchdowns in the game's first 15:07.

In a 7-7 game early in the second quarter, Kitna tried to throw a quick sideline pass, but he didn't see Adalius Thomas drop into coverage on a zone blitz from his defensive tackle spot, and he didn't get enough air under the pass. Thomas grabbed it, juggled it twice, and took off for a 28-yard interception return for a touchdown, the second against the Bengals this season.

On the Bengals' first drive, Kitna overthrew wide receceiver Peter Warrick at the Ravens 46 and free safety Ed Reed picked it off and had a touchdown if he didn't stick the ball out in celebration at the Bengals 8.

That's where wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh slapped the ball out of Reed's hands and when Baxter and James Trapp couldn't fall on it in the end zone, Warrick did to give the Bengals a life.

Not only did Bennett's return tie the game just four minutes into it at 7, but it was the Bengals first points in Baltimore since Blake himself fired a 67-yarder to Carl Pickens in 1998.

It was also the Bengals' first kick return in two years and 361 days since Tremain Mack went all the way against Tennessee.

But the Bengals got what they feared. Blake came out and hit his first four passes for 65 yards to four different receivers against a befuddled Cincinnati secondary. He converted a third-and-two on a quick rollout pass to tight end Todd Heap and then went up top on a superb play-action fake to hit wide receiver Brandon Stokley working one-on-one in front of cornerback Jeff Burris for a 33-yard gain.

Then for the second straight week on the opening drive of the game, defensive tackle Oliver Gibson picked up a penalty (a face mask) that gave the foes a first down. Lewis then walked in from one yard out over the Bengals right side to give the Ravens a 7-0 lead, their first score on an opening drive this season.

The Bengals worked against a skeleton of the defense that mauled them in shutouts their last three trips into this stadium. Right outside linebacker Peter Boulware is the only Super Bowl starter from their record 2000 season who lined up against the Bengals for the first snap.

McAlister (ankle) went down in a game-time decision, leaving the Ravens with rookie starters at both safeties and left defensive end. They had two second-year cornerbacks in the lineup and a nose tackle, Kelly Gregg, was cut by the Bengals.

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