Close. . .but a cigar

10-19-03, 3 p.m. Updated:
10-19-03, 4 p.m. Updated:
10-19-03, 7:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

It's late October and, yes, the Bengals are still on the playoff hunt as the leaders fell like leaves in the AFC North Sunday.

The Bengals made sure one fell here at Paul Brown Stadium before 53,553 on a splendid Indian Summer day that matched the importance of the 34-26 victory over Marvin Lewis' old team that dropped the Ravens to 3-3 and pushed Cincinnati to 2-4, one game up on the Ravens in the division at 2-1.

With the Browns losing to San Diego to go to 3-4, and the Steelers staying at 2-4 during their bye week, you can either ask how bad is the NFL's lone division without a winning team, or when is the last time the Bengals were tied with the Steelers this late in the season?

"A big win," said wide receiver Chad Johnson as he stuck a rather large unlit cigar in his mouth as he walked out of the locker room. Asked if the victory was as big as his cigar, Johnson said, "Of course it is. I started this one after Cleveland and didn't finish it.'

Johnson helped quarterback Jon Kitna respond to Sunday's elevation of rookie Carson Palmer to No. 2 as Kitna dished three touchdown passes and no interceptions for the Bengals' biggest scoring day in PBS history. Among the gems was the longest completion of Kitna's career on a bizarre 82-yard pass to Johnson on the second play of the second quarter that set the tone for Kitna's 274-yard passing day.

"I'm not sure who No. 90 on their team is," said Johnson of Ravens linebacker Cornell Brown. "He kept saying all day, 'Y'all just the same old Bengals.' I just wanted to call a timeout and go talk to him. Do you not see what we're doing out here? It's not the same. I'm glad we pulled this one off because of what No. 90 was saying. 'Y'all just the same old Bengals.'

"As we keep going, people are going to realize what Marvin has done. It's all Marvin. Completely," Johnson said. "You have to feel good for him. Marvin should have that feeling like (Redskins wide receiver) Laveranues Coles had when they whipped the Jets (Coles' former team) on that Monday night. I know that's how Coach Marvin feels."

The coach felt good enough to give his team a Monday off for the first time this season and to implore the fans to sell out for next Sunday's game against Seattle.

"There were a lot of people dressed up as empty seats today," Marvin Lewis said. "We need them. It's as sweet as any other win. It was important because we were at home and we're trying to show people we're in this thing and there's no guarantee any week in the NFL."

Asked about the uncharacteristic Monday off, Lewis smiled.

"We had a deal," he said. "They played hard. They can come in and lift, but it will give the coaches time and the players time to themselves."

After watching these New Wave Bengals beat his team by throwing down the field for three scores of at least 21 yards instead of relying on running back Corey Dillon, Ravens head coach Brian Billick wasn't smiling. He's not that enthused with Cincinnati's new look as he digested just his second loss to the Bengals in 11 games.

If you had said the Bengals would win on a day Ravens running back Jamal Lewis (19 carries for 101 yards) averaged three more yards per carry than Bengals running back Corey Dillon (18 carries for 39 yards), they would have had you committed.

"Forgive me if I'm not popping champagne bottles for him," said Billick of Marvin Lewis, his defensive coordinator for six seasons in Baltimore. "I've been there, and it feels great."

If Brown had been playing offense, he would have seen that these Bengals are also different on defense. For about 20 snaps, they unveiled a wrinkle in a package that added first-year linebacker Dwayne Levels as the fourth backer to an alignment with four linemen, two safeties, and a cornerback. It showed how confident the Bengals felt Baltimore would rely on Jamal Lewis, the NFL's leading rusher, when they went with two tight ends and two running backs. The presence of the 250-pound Levels provided beef against the 240-pound Lewis that a 190-pound cornerback couldn't.

Lewis got 100 yards for the fifth straight game and he did break loose for runs of 35 and 23 yards. But 13 of his 19 carries went for three yards or less. He did average 5.3 yards per carry, but it was more than a yard less than the 6.5 average he brought to PBS, and not enough to control the game.

"It enables us to really line up eight guys in the box, four of them linebackers," said middle

linebacker Kevin Hardy. "Part of it was the scheme, and the other part was putting up those points. Their offense was not able to do the things they're accustomed to doing and that's run the football every down."

The Bengals got their most points in a home game since Jeff Blake closed Cinergy Field with 44 points against the Browns in 1999 by riding their biggest pass plays in years, Johnson's 130 receiving yards, and a defense that forced three-first half turnovers leading to 17 points.

Kitna's 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Peter Warrick seven seconds into the fourth quarter proved to be the winning score and gave the Bengals a 34-10 pad as Warrick made a leaping catch at the 2-yard line and spun past free safety Ed Reed and dove for the touchdown. Baltimore made it interesting enough to try an on-side kick with 1:16 left in the game, but the penalty-plagued Ravens (13-113 yards) committed one last one with an off-sides call to end it. But it didn't count because the Bengals kept it when Warrick spiked it out of bounds.

Marvin Lewis, the leader of the Ravens' greatest defenses, watched his new defense bend but not break. Rookie quarterback Kyle Boller had a career 302-yard day, but he was rushed much of the game and got sacked three times, once by defensive end Carl Powell and strong safety Rogers Beckett for a fumble in the Ravens' red zone recovered by Powell that led to the score that put the Bengals ahead for good at 14-7.

"Marvin (was) a good defensive coordinator — a great defensive coordinator, actually — against the run," Jamal Lewis said. "He's really good against the run and does (a few) things different. My concern coming into the game was running the football. I knew we had to complete the pass over the top, which we did. But us being down so early, it kind of affected us. We had a little time to catch up, but we didn't take advantage of the opportunities that we had."

The Bengals used big plays on both sides of the ball to get up on the Ravens on their biggest plays of the new century.

With the help of Reed, Kitna uncorked the longest pass of his career on an 82-yarder to Johnson that Reed tipped into his hands at the Ravens' 35-yard line as the ball went off both of his hands. Johnson kept his eyes on it, and when he spread his hands in mock surprise after running into the end zone, the Bengals led, 21-7, 20 seconds into the second quarter after finishing off the Bengals' longest pass since 1995.

It's just the kind of break the Bengals haven't been getting for, well, since anyone can remember. Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis wouldn't let Marvin Lewis, his mentor and confidant, forget it.

"As bad as you want to say, 'Yeah, it's the Bengals,' I think what you have to factor in is that it's still an NFL ball club," Ray said. "Reed had a ball bounce off his chest, and one thing about that, I told Marvin (after the game) that I would always like to see the bounces go away from us in September and October, because in November/December, I bet my life Ed catches that pick. Its little things like that, that even though you want to be mad and upset, you can't. You're 3-3, you're the head of division and everyone else in the division is 2-4, so move on."

The Bengals came into the game as the only team in the NFL without a fumble recovery, but two in a span of less than two minutes gave them 14 points in the first quarter for a team that had scored just 10 points in the first quarter all season and hadn't scored 14 points in the first quarter in nearly four years.

They finished off the first-half scoring, which gave them their most points in a game this season, when they turned a diving interception by cornerback Tory James into Shayne Graham's 44-yard field goal with 6:24 left in the half.

Kitna completed just five of 11 passes, and he got sacked three times in the first half, but he had 154 yards passing that included a 45-yard touchdown to tight end Matt Schobel.

"I was thinking about that today when I was standing out in the flat and watching another ball going over my head for Chad again," Schobel said. "It's great how we're stretching the field now."

Dillon, in his first action re-injuring his groin three weeks ago, had one vintage inside-the-tackle run to keep the drive going, and another to end the drive for a two-yard touchdown that gave the Bengals the 14-7 lead with 4:11 left in the first quarter.

The Bengals acknowledged that Dillon needs more work to get timed up with his offensive line, but he was good enough to convert a big third-and-one with 9:37 left in the game and the Ravens creeping back at 34-18 after they stopped the Bengals on a three-and-out in the previous series.

Lewis then took out Dillon to rest him the rest of the way.

"He was sore as the day went on, lugging those guys around," Lewis said. "But he ran hard and played hard. It's funny, I thought about that third-and-one run, but he's our man. He picked it up and then he knew it was time to come out, which was a great thing to do for us."

After the Bengals fell behind, 7-0, right outside linebacker Brian Simmons responded when Jamal Lewis knocked the ball out of Boller's hands on a play-action fake.

Simmons swiped it from Boller under the pile at the Ravens 47 and seconds later Kitna hooked up with Schobel on third-and-eight. With the Ravens double-teaming Johnson and Warrick, Schobel outraced outside linebacker Adalius Thomas down the middle of the field for the longest pass to a Bengals tight end since Tony McGee caught a 54-yarder nine years ago.

The Bengals turned Boller, the lowest-rated passer in the NFL, into Unitas and Starr on the game's first series. In the five previous games, Boller had completed just five balls of 20 yards or longer, But with tight end Todd Heap working one-on-one with free safety Mark Roman and then Beckett, Boller found him for throws of 22 and 20 yards, respectively. Then he found wide receiver Travis Taylor on a 19-yard touchdown pass he threw just over the tight coverage of James 4:45 into the game.

Marvin Lewis downplayed his promotion of Palmer to No. 2 and moving Shane Matthews to No. 3.

"It gives us an option. This has been part of my plan from the time we drafted him and we saw what he could do, and how good we felt he could be," Lewis said. "That we make sure that we give him steps in the process to make him the quarterback that everybody thinks he can be. It was part of my plan to get to the bye weekend and see how he was doing and where we were. It's no reflection on Jon and Shane. It's something I talked to Shane about before I assigned it."

Marvin Lewis named Kitna his offensive captain, and went with end Justin Smith on defense and strong safety Marquand Manuel on special teams.

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