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BALTIMORE — It took two years for the Baltimore Ravens to finally exorcise the ghosts dwelling from a haunting defeat. It barely took them five minutes to strike a chokehold on the initial momentum by recovering a fumble that led to a touchdown run and an electrifying interception return for another score.
And it took them roughly three hours to get the final word over outspoken Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson.
Following a tense fourth quarter capped by cornerback Chris McAlister intercepting a deep Carson Palmer pass in the final seconds, the Ravens could finally relax after claiming a 26-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Midway through the season, the win gives the Ravens (6-2) a two-game advantage in the AFC North over Cincinnati (4-4) and snaps a three-game losing streak to the Bengals.
â€œBasically, weâ€™re in the driverâ€™s seat,â€ tight end Todd Heap said. â€œWeâ€™re in control from here on out and weâ€™re going to have to play like weâ€™ve got control and make sure we donâ€™t let them back into it.â€
Two seasons after Palmer engineered an epic comeback on Dec. 4, 2004 in Baltimore where he tossed three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to overcome a 17-point deficit, the Ravens finally issued their rebuttal.
One series after Jamal Lewis busted into the end zone on a touchdown run after the Ravens recovered Bengals running back Chris Perryâ€™s fumble on the opening kickoff, Baltimore struck again.
This time, it was a secondary that had allowed five touchdown passes in the previous two games that got into the act.
â€œI thought about it,â€ acknowledged safety Ed Reed in a reference to the worst collapse in franchise history. â€œIt isnâ€™t so much that it sunk in during the game.
â€œIt was just that I knew they were going to come out and throw the ball, and we were going to have to fight for the win. We knew what had happened in the past. Those memories have been removed.â€
Oft-victimized cornerback Samari Rolle, who had allowed at least one touchdown pass in four of the previous five games, intercepted an overthrown Palmer pass intended for Johnson.
After running 24 yards down to the Bengalsâ€™ 25-yard line with receiver T.J. Houshmanzadeh trying to tackle him, Rolle lateraled it to Reed and he scooted the remaining distance into the end zone for a 14-0 advantage with 4:32 elapsed in the first quarter.
â€œVindication? I guess you could say that,â€ Rolle said. â€œI maybe had three bad games in a month and everybody wants to make it seem like I canâ€™t play anymore.â€
The defense stymied Palmer, limiting him to 12 of 26 passing for 195 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions for a 52.6 passer rating. In sweeping the series against Baltimore last season, Palmer passed for over 500 yards with five touchdowns and one interception.
Palmerâ€™s first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, and his last was intercepted by McAlister. He nearly led another comeback, though.
â€œWe just have to step on the gas and learn to close people out,â€ Reed said. â€œWe canâ€™t relax.â€
Since firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and assuming play-calling responsibilities, the Ravens have scored 61 points.
Against the Bengals, they generated a season-high 374 yards of total offense and built a 17-0 advantage by the second quarter as quarterback Steve McNair completed 21 of 31 passes for 245 yards, no interceptions and a 91.5 passer rating.
The Ravens built a major edge in time of possession, controlling the clock for 37 minutes and 24 seconds to the Bengalsâ€™ paltry 22 minutes and 36 seconds as running back Jamal Lewis rushed for 72 yards on 24 carries.
Although the Ravens faltered in the red zone where they went 1-for-5 as kicker Matt Stover booted four field goals, the offense was able to produce critical first downs when they absolutely needed them.
For example, McNair scrambled 10 yards for a first down that eventually set up Stoverâ€™s 35-yard field goal with 8:25 remaining one drive after Cincinnati closed the gap to 23-17.
Plus, McNair got a major assist from wide receiver Derrick Mason one play prior to Stoverâ€™s field goal. Mason broke up a late pass that Bengals cornerback Jonathan Joseph was poised to intercept with a vast, uncontested area of real estate in front of him.
"I just had to make a play so he wouldn’t intercept the ball," Mason said. "In a situation like that, I think anybody would have tried to do the same thing. If not, they would have been going the other way for six points. You just try to do what you can to break it up."
On the previous drive, Palmer struck for 71 yards behind McAlister to set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Rudi Johnson where he busted through banged-up middle linebacker Ray Lewisâ€™ tackle attempt to make it 23-17. Lewis had just returned to the field after suffering a spinal contusion when Reedâ€™s knee collided awkwardly with his back on a fumble return that was ultimately nullified by an instant replay review.
â€œFriendly fire, itâ€™s just like a freaky incident,â€ Lewis said. â€œ When I went back in there and hit Rudi, I was like, â€˜Oh my God, itâ€™s not ready.â€™â€
After Shayne Graham booted a 31-yard field goal for Cincinnati, the Ravens went three-and-out and were forced to punt. On fourth-and-4 from the Bengalsâ€™ 30-yard line, rookie nickel back Ronnie Prude broke up a pass intended for Houshmandzadeh.
Houshmandzadeh immediately began screaming for a pass interference flag, displaying his frustration by angrily slamming his helmet to the ground right in front of the officials and drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
â€œA penalty is a penalty, if itâ€™s too much pressure to call it on fourth down, you shouldnâ€™t be refereeing,â€ Houshmandzadeh said. â€œHe hit me before the ball was there.â€
Curiously, Billick had McNair throw it out of the end zone on 4th-and-23 at the Bengalsâ€™ 28 rather than have Stover boot his fifth field goal.
â€œI thought the odds were better,â€ Billick said. â€œThey were higher that they could go 80 yards for a touchdown with the time given. Then, there was a possibility of a blocked field goal. That makes you take the time off the clock, and time is important.â€
Firmly in control of AFC North with their eyes set on the automatic playoff berth a division title carries, the Ravens have assumed a fairly significant edge with eight games remaining.
â€œWeâ€™re in control of our destiny right now, and all we have to do is keep doing this,â€ said Lewis after fielding a congratulatory telephone call in the locker room from Johnson. â€œI try to tell the guys every day that we are our own worst enemy. We still have a lot of work to do. I think what happened as a team was that we blocked out all distractions and played Ravens football.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland