Ravens make early statement in AFC North

BALTIMORE — The actual engraving of the trophy is on hold, but the Baltimore Ravens have opened up a lead on the AFC North.

And they sent quite a message in doing so.

The direct recipients of such message were the Cincinnati Bengals, who got run out of M&T Bank Stadium on Monday night, 44-13, in the season opener for both teams. The other AFC North teams were undoubtedly watching, and they saw a crisp Ravens team that stayed a step ahead of the Bengals for most of the night.

The Ravens hit a 52-yard pass from Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith on the first play of the game and went mostly no-huddle from there. They scored the game’s final 27 points, 24 in a span of 6:14 from the late third to early fourth quarters, to turn it into a laugher.

Flacco threw for 299 yards and a pair of touchdowns, completing 21 of 29 tries and spreading the ball to eight different receivers against a patchwork Bengals secondary. Flacco didn’t miss many, but three passes that should have been intercepted ended up falling out of the hands of at least one Bengals defender and to the ground.

That sort of sums things up for the Bengals, who snuck into the playoffs at 9-7 a year ago but went 1-6 vs. winning teams and 0-4 vs. the Ravens and Steelers.  Monday night, the Bengals were both underdogs and very underwhelming. The best thing they did was hang around, trailing 17-10 at halftime and 17-13 after Mike Nugent’s second field goal of the night started the second half, but that drive stalled at the Ravens’ 1.

What momentum the Bengals created by getting new running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis going late in the first half was lost after they didn’t get into the end zone on that first drive of the third quarter. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton played like a rookie, took a bunch of hits and had turnovers on back-to-back second-half possessions as the Ravens took over.

“Hats off to the Ravens,” Green-Ellis said. “They played well.  It was opening night, national TV, and we laid an egg.”

There’s a long way to go, but the defending division champs and a team that came a dropped pass from representing the AFC in the Super Bowl played like a team that can get back. Flacco gets the headlines in this one, but Ray Rice also rushed for two touchdowns despite just 13 touches.

“This,” Ray Lewis said, “is the offense we’ve been waiting for.”

The Ravens are going to play fast, Flacco looks like the genuine item, and the pass rush misses the injured Terrell Suggs but isn’t exactly turning to the practice squad for help. Ed Reed is still on the roster, too. It was his 34-yard interception return for a touchdown with 13 seconds left in the third quarter that provided the exclamation point.

“We lobbed one up,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “You can’t do that against (Reed). You can’t just give them a turnover.

“This certainly wasn’t what we expected. We got outplayed and outcoached. We didn’t do enough in any phase to win.”
 
In last year’s opener, the Ravens ran the Steelers out of the stadium in similar fashion. They went on to win the division by a game, clinching it in the finale with a win at Cincinnati.

Ravens Coach John Harbaugh is going to spend the upcoming week reminding his players that they’ve lost their second game in each of the last two years after winning the opener. That’s what coaches do.

For now, though, the Ravens can smile. There’s a long, long way to go, but the defending AFC North champions look like the class of the field.