Ravens can be first team into playoffs

Wednesday, November 29th 2006, 12:30 pm
By: News On 6

CINCINNATI (AP) _ Marvin Lewis won't compare Baltimore's current defense to the record-setting one that helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl six years ago.

``That's a long time ago,'' said Lewis, who was their defensive coordinator in 2000. ``I don't even remember that. They're this year's version of the Baltimore Ravens.''

This version is looking like a champion, too.

With a victory over Lewis' Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night, the Ravens (9-2) would become the first team to clinch a division championship this season. A victory in Cincinnati would snatch the AFC North title away from the Bengals (6-5) and put the Ravens on course for greater things.

``There's something much more that we're shooting for, other than just winning the division,'' safety Ed Reed said.

First, they'd like to put the mouthy Bengals in their place.

Some Ravens are miffed by the way receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh talked down to them the first time they met this season. The Ravens won 26-20 on Nov. 5, but Houshmandzadeh wasn't about to give them any credit afterward.

``Deep down, we know we're better than Baltimore and they know it,'' Houshmandzadeh said. ``We've got better players than they do.''

Houshmandzadeh isn't backing down.

``I think we're better than them,'' he said Tuesday. ``We'll find out.''

Sure will.

The Ravens know their three-game lead on the Bengals _ and the chance to clinch a title on their field _ speak for themselves. Reed chortled when Houshmandzadeh's comments were brought up.

``Keep your mouth shut, man,'' Reed said. ``Play football. I heard it. It is what it is. The game speaks for itself. If you think you're a better team, then come out and let's play football, man.''

The Ravens are used to hearing good-natured trash talk from Bengals receiver Chad Johnson, but Houshmandzadeh's slight struck a nerve.

``He must not have played in the game that we were playing in,'' linebacker Terrell Suggs said. ``Anybody could have lined up across from us that day and we had their number. It's evident on the film. If he feels passionate about it, then go out there and prove it this time.''

That jarring loss in Baltimore became a turning point for Cincinnati. The offense finally got on a roll, with Carson Palmer throwing for nine touchdowns in the last three games. For the first time in his career, he has put up passer ratings above 120 for three games in a row.

Studying film of that game in Baltimore made him cringe this week.

``When I say it hurts, I mean it literally hurts watching what we did against them the last time,'' said Palmer, who was only 12-of-26 with two interceptions in the loss. ``We didn't play well at all. I feel we've come a long way and made a lot of progress offensively. They'll be seeing a different unit, a unit they've seen in years past but not in this past game.''

There was a confidence in Cincinnati's locker room this week, a sense that all was well again. The Bengals knew that a victory over Baltimore would leave them in good shape for the playoffs _ they're currently one game out in the wild-card standings.

They also knew there was no margin for error.

``We know what's at stake,'' Houshmandzadeh said. ``We can't afford to stumble and lose another game.''

The Ravens haven't lost since that win over Cincinnati, stretching their winning streak to five games while taking control of the division. Baltimore played its best game of the season last Sunday, a 27-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

``Confidence is probably one of the biggest things that gets overlooked and biggest reasons why a team is successful,'' tight end Todd Heap said. ``You take Pittsburgh, for example, the Super Bowl champions. I think they lacked a little bit of confidence when we played them the other night.

``That was one thing I saw. That's one thing that we've been developing, in that we have a lot of confidence in each other.''

They certainly trust their defense, which leads the league in interceptions, ranks second in sacks and is third in points allowed. The offense has settled into a comfort zone behind quarterback Steve McNair, who is 10-3 career against the Bengals as a starter.

``We have to go out and take this one, regardless of what situations we get put in,'' McNair said.

Everyone knows the situation: A division title can change hands.

``I don't think we need any extra motivation other than beating the Ravens,'' Palmer said. ``We know how to do it. We've done it a number of times. We realize what's at stake.

``We don't need to talk about it. We don't need to talk about the past. We don't need to talk about the future. We can talk about this one game.''