12-7-03, 4:05 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
BALTIMORE _ The Ravens unleashed their patented brew of sacks and turnovers Sunday to take control of the AFC North in a commanding 31-13 victory over the Bengals in their first-place showdown here at M&T Bank Stadium.
The 8-5 Ravens now have a one-game lead over the 7-6 Bengals after preventing a Cincinnati sweep of the series with three games left to play on four second-half turnovers they turned into 14 points to blow open a 17-10 half-time lead..
The monster that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis created, the Baltimore defense, was the deciding factor that tipped the balance of power in the AFC North to the Ravens. They pummeled the Bengals up front as Cincinnati allowed quarterback Jon Kitna to get sacked a season-high six times, with one of them leading to the game-turning fumble at the Bengals 17 with 6:25 left in the third quarter.
The Bengals had crawled to within 17-13 on the first series of the second half when Shayne Graham hit a 38-yard field goal three and a half minutes into the half.
The Bengals' defense responded by getting the ball back, but they had problems with left tackle Levi Jones out for the game with a strained knee. Backup Scott Rehberg couldn't handle defensive end Terrell Suggs on the rush, and Suggs drilled Kitna, stripped the ball and recovered the fumble.
It took running back Jamal Lewis just two runs to punch it in to make it 24-13 as the NFL's leading rusher rolled to 180 yards on his first 30 carries.
The Bengals kept grinding to get something as cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn came up with his first interception of the season on the last play of third quarter, but Kitna responded by throwing his first interception in 138 passes when he threw a ball high over the middle that got picked off by safety Will Demps early in the fourth quarter.
Demps returned it deep into Cincinnati territory to set up Lewis' career-high third touchdown with 11:48 left in the game to make it 31-13 and allow the Ravens' pass rush to tee off even more. Marques Douglas came up the middle to crunch Kitna and forcing a wobbler that got picked off by middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
Then, Rehberg gave up another sack, this one to linebacker Peter Boulware that forced another Ravens' fumble recovery.
Kitna ended up throwing two interceptions for the first time since the Nov. 2 loss in Arizona and finished 23 of 31 for 214 yards. Ravens quarterback Anthony Wright completed just nine passes for 145 yards, but Jamal Lewis and the defense were all he needed.
The Ravens' first three sacks looked to be because of tight pass coverage down field. Cornerback Chris McAlister held wide receiver Chad Johnson without a catch in the first half, blanking the only AFC receiver with 1,000 yards.
In fact, the Ravens' secondary held Johnson without a catch until the first play of the fourth quarter, a quick six-yard out, and let Peter Warrick get a career-high 11 catches for just 90 yards.
The Bengals, who haven't allowed more than four sacks in a game this season, gave up four in a first half the NFL's second-best offense at converting third downs could make just two of eight.
But one of conversions clicked to set up the Bengals' lone touchdown of the half on a 34-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Kelley Washington in the middle of the second quarter. Giving a double move to safety Corey Fuller, Washington raced to the Baltimore 4, and quarterback Jon Kitna (9-for-13 for 94 yards in the half), hit wide receiver Peter Warrick for a four-yard touchdown that cut the Ravens' lead to 14-10 with 6:20 left in the half.
But the Ravens continued to exploit a re-shuffled Bengals' secondary to take away Cincinnati's momentum. The Bengals deactivated cornerback Artrell Hawkins before Sunday's game, sitting down their starting right corner with a knee problem. Head coach Marvin Lewis opted to start safety Kevin Kaesviharn in his spot and suit up cornerback Jeff Burris for passing situations.
Kaesviharn, who switched from cornerback to safety this season, has made five starts this year and and made his first start at corner since Dec. 15 of last season and 10th of his career. Burris hasn't played since leaving the Nov. 9 game against Houston, a week after he suffered his second concussion in a month.
Now leading 14-10, the Ravens caught the Bengals in a blitz and quarterback Anthony Wright went after Kaesviharn. Wide receiver Travis Taylor ran by Kaesviharn for a 64-yard play on field-changing shift that put the ball on the Bengals 11.
With the NFL's leading rusher, Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, on the sidelines with a sprained wrist, they were content to settle for Matt Stover's 22-yard field goal with 2:09 left in the half for the 17-10 lead.
Then, the Bengals bid in the two-minute drill got blown up when defensive end Adalius Thomas bolted up the middle off the snap and sacked Kitna for a 10-yard loss.
Wright threw a touchdown pass to his favorite target, wide receiver Marcus Robinson, for an eight-yard touchdown pass that gave the Ravens a 14-3 lead 20 seconds into the second quarter and gave the Bengals their biggest deficit since the third game of the season. The drive was keyed by linebacker Adrian Ross' face-mask penalty and defensive tackle John Thornton's neutral zone penalty.
The Bengals came into the game hoping the AFC's red-zone trend held up because they were second in scoring touchdowns once they get inside the 20 at 61 percent of the time and the Ravens were last at 36.8.
But the stats went upside down in the game's first 10 minutes when the dust cleared after the game's first turnovers. After defensive end Duane Clemons recovered Jamal Lewis' fumbled caused by strong safety Rogers Beckett at the Ravens 39, the Bengals stalled at the Baltimore 7.
After Bengals running back Corey Dillon pounded out four yards, Kitna overthrew Warrick twice in the end zone, once after faking an end-around to him. So they had to settle for Graham's 25-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead five minutes into the game.
But when Warrick fumbled a punt at the Ravens 28, the Ravens took just six plays to get the touchdown on Lewis' one-yard run to take a 7-3 lead with 4:28 left in the fourth quarter. But they went after the beleaguered secondary when cornerback Tory James got called for interfering with Robinson in the back corner of the end zone on third and three to set up the touchdown.
Jamal Lewis got into his groove early and often behind the Ravens' massive offensive line that handled the quick, but smaller Bengals' defensive line as he rolled for 84 yards on 18 carries in the first half.
Meanwhile, the Bengals' running game couldn't get into any kind of tempo Dillon had just 23 yards for seven carries, and running back Rudi Johnson for four yards on two carries.
The other major pre-game move came when the Bengals made Shane Matthews the backup quarterback and put rookie Carson Palmer back to No. 3 for the first time since Game 5 in Buffalo. The move appears based on the Bengals not wanting Palmer to be forced to make his NFL debut in a game with playoff implications on the road in adverse weather against one of the league's best defenses.
Other inactive players for the Bengals are running back Kenny Watson, safety Marquand Manuel, right guard Matt O'Dwyer, tackle Scott Kooistra, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and defensive end Elton Patterson.