CINCINNATI — It was a dizzying blur that left the Baltimore Ravens’ proud defense stinging with anger at being humbled on their turf and shaking their heads in the locker room afterward.
The final moments of the Ravens’ 17-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last month were defined by costly defensive penalties and coverage breakdowns that enabled Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer to engineer a dramatic game-winning drive capped by his touchdown pass to wide receiver Andre Caldwell.
The overriding memory from the last few minutes was All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis’ crushing helmet-to-helmet hit on flamboyant Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, his good friend. The blow separated the star wideout from his helmet, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty that wound up costing Lewis in the wallet in the form of a hefty fine from the league office.
Galvanized by a resurgent performance from the defense last week during a resounding victory over the previously undefeated Denver Broncos, the Ravens (4-3) need another intimidating effort today against the Bengals (5-2) at Paul Brown Stadium in a game that has major ramifications in the AFC North.
It’s a rematch opportunity that the Ravens can ill afford to squander.
"You can’t overrate how important this game is for us," said cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who will be largely responsible for shadowing Ochocinco today. "That game was a heartbreaker, but we’re not on a revenge tour. We’re thinking about the big picture."
This is definitely a pivotal game for the Ravens’ playoff prospects.
A loss would be extremely damaging as the Ravens already trail the Bengals and the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers by one game in the division.
To go 0-2 against the Bengals would represent a major setback.
"So what we have to do, our mindset now, is we have to put it back on the even playing ground," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We have to go down there and figure out a way to pick up a win in their house."
The Ravens have only been swept by the Bengals three times in the history of the franchise, and Cincinnati has split their four home games this season.
The Bengals have lost their past six games preceded by a bye week, and the Ravens have been installed as a three-point favorite.
The last time the Ravens squared off with the Bengals they were reeling from a last-minute loss to the New England Patriots.
“They probably did us a favor,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “They humbled us a little bit. We came off a disappointing loss against New England, and we thought we would bounce right back. We kind of took that game for granted.
“This is a very important game for all parties involved. We better play some good football. Otherwise, Carson is going to have one of those kind of days.”
The Ravens’ defense regained its trademark swagger against the Broncos, holding rookie running back Knowshon Moreno to 39 rushing yards, shutting down wide receiver Brandon Marshall and harassing quarterback Kyle Orton.
Baltimore held Denver to 200 yards, its most meager total offense output in six years.
They’ll need to approach that standard again this week.
Especially a secondary that has proven to be vulnerable against deep strikes this season, ranking 19th in the league in pass defense.
“It’s definitely a building block kind of thing,” cornerback Fabian Washington said. “We want to build on last week and keep on stacking those blocks.
“I’m not going to say it’s a revenge thing, but we’ve got to win. It’s a division game we’ve got to have.”
With a win, the Ravens could give themselves a boost as they would be 5-3 overall and 2-1 in the division midway through the regular season.
They have an upcoming game they’re expected to win against the hapless Cleveland Browns next week followed by the undefeated Indianapolis Colts at home.
“We know who’s on the schedule,” free safety Ed Reed said. “We know what’s at stake. They know what’s at stake. So, let’s go. ..
“If we split the series with them, we’ll still be fine. So, that’s our goal: to go in there and split the series.”
Against the Broncos, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison orchestrated a more aggressive game plan.
Orton was under constant siege. He was sacked twice and hit often as the Broncos averaged just 3.4 yards per play.
“We’re going to go against great receivers every week. So, it’s going to always be the combination of us getting pressure, the secondary playing with great technique like they’ve worked very hard to do, and calling enough pressures to be able to relieve the front and relieve the secondary.”
The Ravens allowed running back Cedric Benson to rush for 120 yards and a touchdown during the first meeting with the Bengals.
Despite Reed returning a Palmer interception for a touchdown and forcing an Ochocinco fumble in the open field, the Bengals wound up winning behind 403 yards of total offense and 22 first downs as Palmer was only sacked once.
“That’s a game where I definitely felt like we didn’t come out and play to the best of our ability, but they played a great game,” Reed said. “As bad as we played, we were that close to winning the game.”
The duel between Palmer and Joe Flacco should provide some compelling drama today with both franchise quarterbacks capable of taking over a game with their crisp spirals.
As demanding as it is to contain Flacco, the Ravens’ defense arguably faces an even tougher task.
Palmer has so many weapons to choose from downfield, including Ochocinco, Caldwell, Laveranues Coles and Chris Henry.
“We’re playing maybe the quarterback who’s playing the best in the NFL right now,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Our corners are playing tremendous technique with discipline, but their challenge this week is immense. You look at the quarterback and the receivers that they’re up against, it’s going to be tough.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.