BALTIMORE — With the winner taking a share of first place in the AFC North with the Steelers, Sunday's slugfest at M&T Bank Stadium between the Bengals and Ravens percolated as advertised with Baltimore prevailing 17 yards and 33 seconds from overtime in a 31-24 win.
Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton responded to his third interception of the game with a pair of drives in the fourth quarter that cut Baltimore's lead to 31-24 with 5:32 left and a 43-yard moon ball to wide receiver Jerome Simpson with 1:02 left to the Ravens 7 that gave the Bengals a shot to tie.
But Dalton was called for intentional grounding when linebacker Terrell Suggs overpowered running back Brian Leonard and had Dalton in the grasp and Dalton flung it out of bounds to set up third down from the Ravens 17. He got flushed out of the pocket on third down and end Pernell McPhee came from the left side on fourth down as he beat left tackle Andrew Whitworth to sack Dalton to end it.
Dalton, finishing 24-of-45 for a career-high 373 yards despite his first three-pick game, cited miscommunication on those last three snaps and Whitworth said there was a cadence issue on fourth down.
Dalton's nine-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham with 5:38 left was overturned when Gresham steadied the ball on the ground after he made an outstanding juggling catch on third down and the Bengals needed Mike Nugent's field goal cut it to 31-24. It looked like Gresham had control of the ball as he crossed the pylon, but referee Ron Winter said when he went to the ground he didn't have possession all the way through on a call the Bengals disagreed.
But, as Dalton said, "It's in the rulebook."
Then for the second time in the quarter, Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko stopped running back Ray Rice on third-and-one to force a punt with 2:39 to give Dalton that one last shot. For the first time all year the Bengals lost the field position battle when punter Kevin Huber struggled against Sam Koch, and Koch put Dalton in the hole at his own 14 for the last drive.
But Dalton wasn't done as he scrambled for nine yards and hit wide receiver Andrew Hawkins for 19 more before the bomb to Simpson that gave him a career-high 152 yards.
Dalton threw back-to-back picks late in the third quarter and early in the fourth to mushroom Baltimore's lead to 31-14, the last one coming when cornerback Lardarius Webb stretched out on the sideline to steal Dalton's wide throw to wide receiver Andre Caldwell. The Ravens then went for the jugular on the next snap when quarterback Joe Flacco hit rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith running through a zone between safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson for a 38-yard touchdown catch with 14:02 left in the game that made it 31-14 for the Bengals' biggest deficit of the season.
Smith finished with 165 yards on just six catches.
Dalton quickly cut it to 31-21 when he joined Dan Marino and Peyton Manning as the only rookie quarterbacks since the 1970 merger to throw 15 touchdown passes in his first 10 games when he threw a strike to Caldwell racing down the right sideline past rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith for a 49-yard touchdown pass with 10:59 left for the longest TD play this season against Baltimore.
The Bengals cut the lead to 17-14 in the middle of the third quarter aided by Leonard's career-high 37-yard catch on third-and-three from a scrambling Dalton that extended the play for several seconds and got Leonard loose downfield. That led to Gresham's first catch of the day, a 24-yarder on the left sideline. Running back Cedric Benson then scored from three yards out with 5:38 left in the third for his first two-TD day of the season as he followed a big time double-team block on Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata by center Kyle Cook and right guard Bobbie Williams.
Moments earlier, the Bengals made a big goal-line stand in the wake of Rice's 59-yard gash against the NFL's second-best rush defense. Rice bolted up the middle and safety Crocker missed him in the box and was off to the races. Safety Reggie Nelson hustled down the field just as Rice was about to score and slowed him up just enough at the Bengals 6 to allow cornerback Adam Jones to make the tackle. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins then logged a third-down sack to force a field goal.
It was Rice's lone big play, but it gave him 104 yards rushing on 20 carries, just the second time the Bengals had allowed a 100-yard rusher since Willis McGahee Week 2 in Denver.
While Dalton cooled off, Flacco heated up and led the Ravens to a 14-7 halftime lead in a game Cincinnati failed to grab early in the second quarter.
Working without his favorite target, injured wide receiver A.J. Green, Dalton threw a jump ball to Caldwell in the end zone with 19 seconds left in the half, but Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed ranged from the middle of the field for his ninth career interception against the Bengals and cost them a shot at a field goal.
(Dalton ran the spectrum during the day. He gave up Reed's 57th career pick and Smith's first.)
Dalton hit four of his first five passes (and the miss was a drop), but ended the half 10-of-22 for 111 yards and missed some open receivers deep.
Leading 7-0, the Bengals allowed the Ravens to score two offensive touchdowns for the first time since 2008 and they did it in a 3:50 span during the second quarter with both aided by big pass plays as the Ravens took that 14-7 lead with 8:33 left in the first half.
Torrey Smith ran past cornerback Nate Clements down the right sideline for a 49-yard play on a perfect throw from Flacco that set up Rice's one-yard touchdown run that made it 14-7.
The usually steel-belted Bengals special teams faltered early in the second quarter when Huber's 15-yard punt set up the first catch by a Ravens wide receiver on a 35-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin that tied the game with 11:17 left in the second quarter. After a tough start, Flacco got a first down on third-and-five when he led tight end Ed Dickson nicely to the sidelines on a 14-yard pass that Jones almost tipped away.
The Bengals then allowed Flacco to roll out to his right unencumbered and he was able to survey the field forever until he saw Boldin cut against the grain across the middle of the field and the defense lost him in the zone, where Boldin was wide open at about the 15 and ran in untouched.
The Bengals used two chunk plays that are always needed to beat Baltimore on two amazing catches by Simpson and Hawkins to take a 7-0 lead with 8:17 left in the first quarter on Benson's seven-yard touchdown run.
Dalton hooked up with Simpson on a brilliant juggling catch for 47 yards, Cincinnati's longest completion since Green's 58-yarder against the Bills on Oct. 2. Dalton went up top down the left sideline and Simpson got behind cornerback Cary Williams. Williams deflected the ball and Simpson reached behind to tip it to himself before getting five more yards.
Then Hawkins got the Bengals into the red zone on third-and-five when he caught the back end of a 16-yard laser as he stretched out to make a diving catch. After cornerback Chris Carr face-guarded Caldwell, the Bengals dented the third-ranked Ravens red zone defense when Benson mashed in the seven-yarder behind the blocks of Cook, Williams and right tackle Andre Smith as Benson dragged in linebacker Jameel McClain trying to come off Cook's block.
That came after the Ravens had a three-and-out on the first series when on third-and-two Flacco had Rice open working against middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and threw it behind him to force a punt.
But early in the second quarter the Bengals missed a great chance to maybe go up 14-0 and take control of the game after forcing the Ravens to punt from their own end zone following Flacco's fumble in the pocket and a false start.
Dalton had a first down from his own 38. He rolled out right after a play-action fake and had Caldwell wide open down the middle, two steps behind Reed. But Dalton threw it short and Caldwell couldn't come up with a diving catch on a play that could have gone for six with a good throw. Then, on third-and-eight, Hawkins went one way and Dalton threw another for an incompletion that set up Huber's 15-yard punt.
Then the Bengals contributed to the Ravens' momentum when they followed up Baltimore's first score with three straight incompletions for a three and out.
Dalton had Simpson open down the left sideline on one snap, but his throw sailed out of bounds.
Clements gave the Bengals a shot at a late field goal with his first interception as a Bengal when he stepped in front of a sideline pass.
The Bengals did a good job blanketing Rice on 17 yards for six carries in the half, but Flacco, brutal against them in the last four games with a 42 passer rating, lit them for 11-of-19 passing for 173 yards and an 83.9 rating.
The Bengals had tough sledding in the run with Benson and Bernard Scott amassing 36 yards on 15 carries in the half. They did finish with 119 ysrds on 30 carries, but Dalton had 32 on four carries.
PREGAME NOTES: Hours of angst and antipation ended when Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis and Bengals rookie wide receiver A.J. Green were officially declared out of Sunday's game at M&T Bank Stadium.
And it is believed Green's status for next Sunday's game against the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium isn't a given. Although there has been no structural damage to the right knee he hyperextended last week, the Bengals don't want to get any if he comes back too early. The club's thinking seems to be that one or two games in the middle of a playoff chase isn't worth a long-term knee problem for a player it views as a franchise staple for the next decade.
Meanwhile, Bengals cornerback Adam Jones bounded onto the field with a shout for Sunday's warmups. He was listed as probable after practicing Thursday and Friday and he got the start. It is his first snap from scrimmage in 13 months since his only other start as a Bengal back on Oct. 24, 2010, the day he suffered a herniated neck disc.
The other starter at corner, Nate Clements, figures to go into the slot and cover veteran receiver Anquan Boldin in three-receiver sets, when Jones and Kelly Jennings work on the outside. The concern for the Bengals going into the game with Leon Hall out was if they had anybody that could stay with speedy Ravens rookie receiver Torrey Smith.
Andre Caldwell got the start in place of Green at wide receiver and left end Carlos Dunlap, the club's best pass rusher who missed last week's game with a hamstring injury, was active.
Also on the Bengals inactive list were offensive linemen Anthony Collins and Clint Boling, wide receiver Ryan Whalen, and linebacker Dontay Moch as well as tight end Donald Lee, out for a second straight game with a foot problem.
The Ravens sidelined wide receiver David Reed after he fumbled two kickoffs in last week's loss to Seattle and Torrey Smith was expected to replace him on at least a few kicks. Lewis missed his first game since 2007.
The Ravens activated wide receiver Lee Evans for the first time in eight weeks with his career 21-yard per catch against the Bengals.
The Bengals captains were center Kyle Cook, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, running backs Cedric Benson and Cedric Peerman, and left end Robert Geathers. The Ravens won the toss and deferred, giving the Bengals the opening kickoff.