Bengals can take control of AFC North
Ray Lewis took aim and a delivered a jarring hit intended to do more than break up a pass. In his bruising style, the Ravens linebacker was trying to wrap up a win.
Didn't work out that way.
When Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco - one of Lewis' longtime friends - smacked the ground and lost his tiger-striped helmet, a yellow flag landed at the point of impact. The high hit drew a 15-yard penalty that aided Cincinnati's drive for a last-minute touchdown and a 17-14 win in Baltimore last month.
Ochocinco wasn't down for long, popping to his feet in a matter of seconds. By contrast, the Ravens (4-3) are the ones trying to get back up as they head into the rematch Sunday against the Bengals (5-2), who have a two-week window of opportunity to take control of the AFC North.
"They've got a lot on the line, but we've got a lot more on the line," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said.
Cincinnati's win on Oct. 11 completed a stunning stretch. The Bengals ran off three straight wins over division opponents - Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore - by pulling out games with last-minute drives. In Baltimore, Palmer led the Bengals 80 yards with the help of three Ravens penalties that accounted for 30 yards and a couple of first downs.
When he found Andre Caldwell open for a 20-yard touchdown catch with 22 seconds left, the Bengals were atop the division. They can take control of it by beating the Ravens and then winning in Pittsburgh (5-2) next week, leaving them 5-0 in division play.
"I see this as a two-game season," Ochocinco said, "from the standpoint that with a win this week and next week in Pittsburgh, it's really setting us up for a playoff berth. And after that, continuing to win and be successful throughout the season could really give us a bye week."
Ochocinco was referring to the playoffs, of course.
Baltimore knows it can't let that happen if it wants to reach the playoffs again. The Bengals are rested, coming off their bye. The Ravens have their swagger back, coming off a 30-7 win over previously unbeaten Denver.
This one means more than most.
"We know who's on the schedule," Ravens safety Ed Reed said. "We know what's at stake. They know what's at stake. So, let's go."
Reed returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown in that game last month, and the Ravens were in position to close it out after Ray Rice turned a short pass into a 48-yard touchdown and a 14-10 lead. The Bengals failed to get a first down, and Joe Flacco had a chance to finish them off.
Mark Clayton ran free down the left sideline on a third-down play, but Flacco overthrew the pass. If it's on the mark, the Bengals are finished.
Instead, they got another chance and pulled it out - with the help of Lewis' rattling hit on Ochocinco on a high pass that the off-balance receiver couldn't catch. His helmet tumbled off his head after Lewis flattened him.
A few days later, the NFL fined Lewis $25,000 for that hit and for kicking a Bengals player earlier in the game. He's still stewing over it.
"You don't go helmet to helmet, you're running toward the ball, you make a clean hit and then you get penalized for it," Lewis said. "So then you can ask yourself: Are you going to slow down the way you play, or are you going to keep playing football the way you know how to play football?"
Ochocinco knows the answer.
"That's the way football is played," said the receiver, who counts Lewis as a mentor. "Ray knows that. I know that. If I was to catch him slipping in midair, I'd try to take his head off, too. Then I'd help him up and tell him, 'I love you.' You all know how our relationship is. He's the closest person I have as a father figure in the NFL besides coach (Marvin Lewis).
"That's the way it is. That's the way it's going to be this Sunday. If he gets a chance to hit me again, I hope he'll do the same thing."
This time, the Ravens need more than one big hit. Another loss to the Bengals would leave them 0-2 against Cincinnati and make them a long shot for the division title.
"So what we have to do, our mindset now, is we have to put it back on the even playing ground," receiver Derrick Mason said. "We have to go down there and figure out a way to pick up a win in their house."