- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals will stage a showdown for the undisputed AFC North lead today at M&T; Bank Stadium.

With a victory, the Ravens (7-5) would be in great shape to capture the franchise’s first division title. But a loss would severely hamper their chances because the Bengals would have an edge in all tiebreakers because of a two-game season sweep.

The surprising Bengals are the feel-good story of the NFL this season under first-year coach Marvin Lewis, architect of the Ravens’ record-setting defense three years ago in their Super Bowl season. Cincinnati is bidding for its first winning season in more than a decade. A loss for either team wouldn’t end its playoff chances, merely dump it into the AFC wild-card mix.

“Both teams, I think, are aware — I’m sure Marvin’s stressing the same thing — that win or lose this game, there’s a lot of football left to be played and you cannot overreact one way or the other to the consequences of this game,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

The Ravens’ final three games are against teams without winning records. But the Bengals still have to visit the high-powered, NFC West-leading St. Louis Rams (9-3) in two weeks.

“[The Bengals] are never safe until the clock goes to 0:00,” said Ravens Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ray Lewis, the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Month for November. “They know what comes when they come to play us, especially [in] Baltimore. It is not talking trash; the Bengals don’t play well when they come see the Ravens at home. So come see us again at home — we are playing [mad] now.”

Some in the media are declaring this matchup the next great rivalry. What rivalry? Since their relocation to Baltimore in 1996, the Ravens are 10-5 against the Bengals and have won nine of the last 11.

This game marks the third road game in three weeks for the Bengals, the only NFL team to be so burdened. Cincinnati won at lowly San Diego two weeks ago and used a late comeback to win at Pittsburgh 24-20 last week.

“Marvin said that they were going to win three on the road,” Ray Lewis said. “The last one is in Baltimore, so they predicted a victory. We just have to go play, [but] the pressure is on them now.”

Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, the NFL’s leading rusher with 1,442 yards and eight touchdowns on 284 attempts, has rushed for more than 100 yards every time he’s faced the Bengals. In the first meeting — a turnover-plagued 34-26 setback at Cincinnati in Week 6 — Lewis ran for 101 yards on 19 carries.

Lewis has played five career games against the Bengals and rushed for 582 yards (5.3 avg.). The Ravens workhorse also has accounted for 107 receiving yards. That’s 689 yards total, or an average of 137.8 yards.

The Ravens’ fourth-rated defense, meanwhile, must contend with Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna, who has thrown 19 touchdown passes with just four interceptions in his last nine games.

Kitna’s favorite target, wide receiver Chad Johnson (71 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns), is the AFC’s second-leading receiver and the only player in the conference with over 1,000 receiving yards. Bengals wideout Peter Warrick is tied for sixth in the AFC with 59 catches for 646 yards and five touchdowns.

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