BALTIMORE — The Bengals-Ravens series looks like it's going to be a doozy for the decade or so after the kids got done romping through M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday in Baltimore's 31-24 victory furnished by three rookies that fended off another fourth-quarter bid by Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.
The Ravens are now tied for first place in the AFC North with Pittsburgh at 7-3 and the Bengals are a game back at 6-4 wondering might have been if their rookie of the year candidate had been able to join in the fun. But wide receiver A.J. Green sidelined with his hyperextended knee didn't stop Dalton from pitching for 373 yards against the NFL's No. 3 defense that had allowed just 194 passing yards per game for the most passing yards by a Bengals quarterback since Carson Palmer threw for 401 yards in Cleveland in 2007.
Dalton steered the Bengals to 483 yards against the NFL's third-best defense, their most since that day four years ago against the Browns in an unexpected yards-fest in which the Ravens put up a season-high 373 yards on the fifth-ranked Bengals defense.
Throw in a good old-fashioned controversy when Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham's nine-yard touchdown catch with 5:38 left in the game got overturned and forced the Bengals to go for it on fourth down with 33 seconds left instead of kick a tying field goal from the Ravens 17, and the rivalry is already simmering even before they tee it up at Paul Brown Stadium in the Jan. 1 season finale.
"Dalton made some great passes, and he was better than we expected," said Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb. "We knew he was good, but not that good. We're going to have to see him again."
But like the Ravens usually do in their purple-crazed aviary, where they hold foes to 13.3 points per game under head coach John Harbaugh, the visiting quarterback ends up going through a Monday morning autopsy and that's what Dalton is going to be doing after his first three–interception game.
The most disappointing aspect of the game came on the last three snaps and the Bengals trying to tie it from the Ravens 7 with 50 seconds left. Dalton couldn't get a pass off even though the Ravens rushed only three and dropped eight into pass coverage.
"He's a rookie, but he's a very good football player," Harbaugh said. "He's a good quarterback, and he proved it. He's very accurate, obviously, he does a nice job. He's a guy we are going to have to learn to deal with."
But Harbaugh got big games himself from three rookies that, unlike Dalton, survived the ups and downs of rookies. Second-round pick Torrey Smith picked up a huge penalty on a crack-back block but blazed to 165 yards on just six catches. First-round cornerback Jimmy Smith got toasted by wide receiver Andre Caldwell for a 49-yard touchdown pass, but his first NFL interception broke open Baltimore's 17-14 lead late in the third quarter. Defensive end Pernell McPhee didn't do much until he slid past left tackle Andrew Whitworth on the final Bengals snap at the Ravens 17 for the killing sack.
"Just look, look at the guy who made the play at the end of the game – Pernell McPhee," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "You expect that would be a (Terrell) Suggs or somebody, but we've got young guys stepping up making plays. That's what's going to carry us going forward. Three rookies who made big plays in the game today: Jimmy Smith, Torrey Smith and Pernell McPhee, basically finishing the game. These (are) three rookies that finished the game for us."
Dalton had three games in one. He came out blistering, hitting four of his first five passes and the one miss was a drop. Then he had a bad throw, a short rollout pass to Caldwell running past safety Ed Reed with the Bengals leading, 7-0, that could have been a touchdown if it was thrown in stride. That started a brutal stretch that ended in which Dalton finished 6-for-17, including a throw out of-bounds with wide receiver Jerome Simpson running open on a bomb. Dalton's last throw was an end-zone heave with 19 seconds left in the half from the Ravens 42 that cost the Bengals a shot at a field goal.
"I thought the play before half was probably a play we don't need to have, the throw down the middle before the half," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "Give me a chance to make a decision of what to do. Don't force my hand and let them kneel on it. That's the only thing. I think, otherwise he shows a lot of poise."
But then Dalton came back to shred the Ravens on 14-of-23 passing for 262 yards in the second half that included the perfect bomb to Caldwell down the right side running past Smith after he calmly changed the protection at the line. Then in the last minute he found Simpson on a 43-yard bomb running past cornerback Cary Williams on the other side and Simpson rewarded him with another acrobatic catch.
It all had people thinking back to Carson Palmer's 24-point fourth quarter here seven years ago in a 27-26 win.
"I saw pressure from the right side. I knew I had him one-on-one, so I took a shot and he made a great play," Dalton said of the pass to Simpson. We were down, we didn't have much time, and I had to play better."
Dalton said he didn't adjust, but he felt the Bengals performed better in an up-tempo offense that worked at the line of scrimmage. Asked if he'd like to see more of that, he smiled for the only time in his news conference and said something about taking a look at it.
The Ravens, playing without middle linebacker Ray Lewis (foot) for the first time in four years, are used to burying quarterbacks at that point.
"31-14, I thought (Dalton) was going to tuck it in and throw the ball everywhere, and we were going to get a few picks and a few sacks," Suggs said. "But he kept his composure. I tip my hat off to him. We're going to see him again at the end of the year, and we expect the same thing: a dog fight until the end."
But in the end, it came back to the two interceptions in the second half and what the Ravens did with them. As hot as was Dalton was, he managed a rookie-like incompletion to Caldwell on an out pattern early in the fourth quarter and he missed him so badly that Webb was able to make a diving interception at the Bengals 38, Dalton's sixth pick of the year in the fourth quarter.
On the next play Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco went up top to Smith through a zone that split safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson.
But the tough one was Smith's pick with 40 seconds left in the third quarter when Dalton tried to hit Caldwell with a short pass in a zone, not unlike the interception he threw last week with 2:27 left and the Bengals driving to tie the Steelers. Smith stepped in front of Caldwell at the 32 and headed for home, but Simpson made a great play punching it out of Smith's arm from behind.
Yet the Ravens recovered at the 2, scored on the next play and the 24-14 deficit was huge.
Dalton said he'd have to look at the film to see what happened on the final series, but it was clear the O-line's failure to block just three Ravens up front on the last three plays killed the Bengals. The second-down play was curious, given that the Ravens rushed only three and still ended up with Suggs, Baltimore's all-time sack leader, working on running back Brian Leonard, the matchup the Ravens still got, and Dalton compounded the problem with a rookie mistake when he chucked it out of bounds for intentional grounding as Suggs hugged him.
That put the ball on the Ravens 17 and gave the Bengals just two more snaps. On third down the Ravens chased Dalton out of bounds to the left and he had to throw it away. On fourth down McPhee ran around Whitworth for the final-snap sack.
"It was a cadence issue that we were all messed up on what the count was," said Whitworth, who has never allowed a sack to Suggs but was nicked by the rookie. "We just didn't hear. We were trying to communicate it to the outside (receivers). We just didn't get it done."
Dalton: "It wasn't necessarily the noise. It was a little miscommunication on some things, but we've got to make a play ... on the last play, we were running the clock and the ball got snapped. It was miscommunication."
It was a tough end to a tough day when the Ravens played older than the Bengals. That hit Lewis hard as he gave a long pause and shook his head before starting his postgame news conference.
"Disappointing finish there to the football game," Lewis said. "We got off to a good start today, driving the ball down the field, did some good things, but we've got to play smarter. We didn't play smart enough today to win the football game. We had too many critical errors at critical times. They took advantage of it, and we didn't."
But the Ravens seem to realize a new rivalry is just beginning.
"I said it during the week, the guy throws good balls," the old pro Reed said after his 57th career pick bookended Smith's first. "He has the poise. He completed passes and moved the ball when they needed to. They gave themselves a chance at the end of the game to win the game (or) tie the game up. That's what you want from a quarterback. You've got to like what you see. He had poise."