Ravens 27, Bengals 23
-- A trip here late in the season is one of the least appealing for NFL teams. The wind-chill factor is usually below 20 degrees and half the stadium is empty. Even a victory as dramatic as the one the Baltimore Ravens had today does not seem as sweet as most, for reasons that include the announcer in the press box slipping once and calling the home team the "Bungals."
"If we beat the Bengals, people are going to say it's just the Bengals," said Ravens guard Edwin Mulitalo. "If you lose to the Bengals, they'll say: 'You guys [are awful].' I try to tell people we give them the same respect we give every team, but nobody listens. I'm sure I'd be the same way if I were a fan. I'm not. I'm getting my mouth hit every down. So for us this was incredible."
The Ravens eventually won, 27-23, after defensive end Adalius Thomas batted away quarterback Jon Kitna's fourth-down pass about five yards shy of the goal line with 34 seconds left and lowered the Bengals' NFL-worst record to 1-11.
For those who stayed with it, the game eventually became immensely entertaining. Included were two momentum-swinging plays by Ravens rookie defensive back Chad Williams -- a 98-yard touchdown run with an intercepted pass and a blocked punt that fellow rookie Ron Johnson ran into the end zone from 22 yards.
Instead of the Bengals increasing their 13-7 lead less than 20 seconds before halftime, Williams's length-of-the field theft gave the Ravens a 14-13 advantage. Cincinnati had a 23-14 lead early in the fourth quarter when Williams blocked the punt and Johnson grabbed it after one hop and scooted into the end zone.
Williams broke free inside because the Bengals double-teamed the Raven to his right, rookie Ed Reed. Of his gift touchdown, Johnson said: "That was the slowest bounce I've ever seen in my life."
After failing to score a touchdown last week, the Baltimore offense had two today, 39- and 22-yard passes by quarterback Jeff Blake to wide receiver Travis Taylor and tight end Todd Heap, respectively. And a team few expected to win more than a handful of games before linebacker Ray Lewis missed six games with what proved to be a season-ending shoulder injury remained in playoff contention at 6-6.
Coach Brian Billick is careful about when to tell the team it faces a character-defining moment, but today was one.
"Offense, defense, special teams, they took that challenge when it was issued," he said. "Particularly the offense on that last drive."
Billick was referring to Blake, who passed for just 115 yards overall, helping lead a 69-yard drive that ended with his touchdown pass to Heap in the middle of the end zone with five-plus minutes left for what proved to be the final points. As usual, tailback Jamal Lewis, who had 121 yards rushing and passed 1,000 yards for the season, was the focal point.
Blake had two completions, and bought a dazzling amount of time before finally connecting with Heap in the middle of the end zone after primary receiver Taylor was double covered.
"There was so much time that I'd turned to the official and argued I'd been held," Heap said. "Jeff still hadn't thrown the ball, so I went in the direction he was moving. That was the all-time scramble drill."
The Bengals held the ball for most of the final five minutes and converted two fourth-down plays before getting a first down on the Baltimore 13. On first down, cornerback Gary Baxter knocked down a short pass. On second down, Williams stopped running back Rudi Johnson at the 10 after a swing pass. On third down, linebacker Edgerton Hartwell flicked away Kitna's pass just inside the end zone.
On the ultimate play, Thomas said Kitna tried to lure him into a rush that would leave tailback Corey Dillon uncovered over the middle. Thomas held his ground -- and the Ravens were victorious after Blake later kneeled down twice.
"We've been [in that situation] a lot of times this year," Thomas said of the hugely inexperienced defense. "We knew how to respond. It was just another test."
The Ravens had numerous chances to lose, among them handing the Bengals all 30 yards for what ended as a 40-yard field goal by Neil Rackers on the last play of the first half. The first 15 yards were for linebacker Peter Boulware roughing Kitna on an incompletion. The last 15 were against rookie Randy Hymes for an improper leap as Rackers was pushing a 55-yarder left.
Matt Stover's 39-yard field goal late in the first quarter was nullified when Ravens tight end John Jones was caught holding. Stover was very short on the 49-yarder and later was wide from 38 yards.
"We made more mental errors than we've made in quite a while," Billick said. "We did a couple of things that probably should have cost us the game, penalties, blown assignments, whatever."
Ravens Notes: CBS reported that rookie wide receiver Javin Hunter, a sixth-round draftee from Notre Dame, violated the NFL's substance abuse policy and faces suspension after testing positive for ephedrine earlier in the season. A Ravens spokesman said the team has not been notified, but Hunter confirmed the report. "I appealed," Hunter said. "I'm not talking about it until the appeal."