- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

BALTIMORE | Marvin Lewis chuckled when reminded that the winner of Sunday’s game between his Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens will gain sole possession of first place in the AFC North.

“That would be fleeting,” the coach said. “If we were playing a five-game schedule, I’d feel good about that.”

Lewis knows the standings after the first four or five games do not necessarily project the outcome of a season. Then again, that very well might have been the case last year, when Cincinnati lost its first eight games.

So, although their 3-1 start won’t guarantee a thing, it’s reason enough for the Bengals to believe this year could turn into something memorable - especially if they beat the Ravens (3-1) to move atop a division that includes the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

“It’s awesome. These are the games that you really need to get early in the season so when December comes along, we can kind of chalk that one up a little bit, be like, ‘OK, we took care of that one early, let’s go into this run,’ ” guard Bobbie Williams said.

And what of being in first place after five games?

“That’s an added bonus to us. We’re going for the ‘W,’ but that would an added bonus,” defensive tackle Tank Johnson said. “So just taking care of this right here is going to be major in a lot of different ways.”

The Bengals, to a degree, are much like last year’s Ravens. Few expected much, and suddenly, they deserve the respect usually given the traditional contenders.

“You can’t go into the season and expect one team to be one way. It’s always going to be different,” Ravens tight end Todd Heap said. “Last year, everybody was expecting [the Bengals] to be good. Marvin Lewis has them going this year. They’ve got a lot of the same guys and added some good players.”

The Bengals are one fluke pass away from being unbeaten. After Brandon Stokley took a deflected throw into the end zone to carry Denver to a 12-7 win in the opener, Cincinnati beat Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Cleveland by a combined 13 points.

Which is why, although the Ravens twice defeated the Bengals last year - including a 34-3 rout on the road - Cincinnati is not perceived as a pushover anymore.

“They’re just better than they were a year ago in terms of their talent, and they’re healthy. And obviously, they’re on a roll,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said.

The Ravens boast the third-ranked offense in the league but likely will have to play without left tackle Jared Gaither, who hurt his neck in last week’s 27-21 loss to New England. Rookie Michael Oher will move to left tackle and Marshal Yanda will take over on the right side, which means Baltimore will be using a patchwork line against Antwan Odom, tied for the league lead in sacks with eight.

Lewis usually prepares for the Ravens by finding a way to neutralize Baltimore linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. But this time his to-do list includes containing quarterback Joe Flacco, who has thrown for more than 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns.

“He’s a quarterback who has an open offense now,” Johnson said. “He’s able to do a lot more things now. He’s got a few more toys to play with. He’s like a kid in a candy store - he’s got a lot of options.”

No Bengals-Ravens matchup would be complete without a few choice words from Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco, who was at his comical best during a conference call with Baltimore reporters.

“When I score, which you know I will do, I have a special [celebration]. It’s called ‘The Ricky Bobby,’ for those of you who saw ‘Talledega Nights.’ It should be really nice,” Ochocinco said. “It’s a rule breaker. I did send the NFL the fine money ahead of time.”

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