11-10-02, 3:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
BALTIMORE _ 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.
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 closed in on a club record for kick return yardage in a game with 180 on four tries in the half, 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, Ravens quarterback Jeff 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.
Blake, of course, worked against the team that gave him his break, a club that he thinks broke him. He had a Pro Bowl berth as well as two benchings in a star-crossed six seasons in Cincinnati.
But on the field before the game, Blake made it a point to say hello to some old friends. When Blake told him his father was at the game, Bengals President Mike Brown lightly punched him on the shoulder and asked with a laugh, "Who is he rooting for?" Quarterback coach Ken Anderson kidded about his gray hair before wishing him good luck, and after hugging him, running back Corey Dillon ran away saying, "Please, no long ones Blake. No long ones."