No one thought the Cincinnati Bengals could be in this position after a 1-4 start—except maybe coach Marvin Lewis.
Lewis and the Bengals, seeking their longest winning streak since they last reached the Super Bowl, head into M&T Bank Stadium to face the Baltimore Ravens in a showdown for first place in the AFC North.
This game marks Lewis’ first game back in Baltimore since he served as the Ravens defensive coordinator from 1996-2001. In his first game against his former team, Lewis led Cincinnati to a 34-26 home win over Baltimore on Oct. 19.
That victory sparked a stretch of seven wins in eight games for the Bengals, with Lewis leading a remarkable turnaround in his first season as coach after the team went 2-14 in 2002.
“We’ve had a big game for the last five weeks, and it will be big for the next four we have left,” Lewis said Monday. “It doesn’t really change. The same thing’s on the line, just like it was last week.”
The teams enter this matchup tied for first place in the AFC North, meaning the winner will have a one-game lead with three to play. If the Bengals win, they’ll also own the season series tiebreaker over the Ravens.
Cincinnati, an NFL-worst 55-137 from the 1991-2002 seasons, is 7-5 for the first time since it last made the playoffs in 1990. With a victory Sunday, the Bengals will have their first five-game win streak since the 1988 season, when they lost to San Francisco in the Super Bowl.
“In years past, we didn’t win the tough games,” running back Corey Dillon said. “Now we’re winning them. As long as I’ve been here, December was just December, it doesn’t mean too much. This is different.”
The Bengals trailed 20-17 with 1:05 remaining at Pittsburgh on Sunday before quarterback Jon Kitna rallied them to a 24-20 win over the Steelers.
Kitna marched Cincinnati from its own 48-yard line in the final minute and hit tight end Matt Schobel for an 18-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds left to give the Bengals their first four-game win streak since 1989.
“It was a game for history for us,” offensive tackle Willie Anderson said Monday. “Hopefully it will have a huge impact for us down the line somewhere.”
A week earlier the Bengals won 34-27 at San Diego, meaning Cincinnati now has the chance to win three in a row on the road for the first time since 1995.
“We’re going to do what people said we couldn’t do. We’re going to win three on the road,” Lewis said. “That’s not a prediction, that’s our goal. It’s our goal to win three on the road, and we have a great ballgame next week.”
Kitna was 18-of-32 for 271 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against Pittsburgh. He is the only quarterback in the NFL to take every snap this season and has thrown 18 touchdown passes with only one interception in the team’s seven wins.
The Bengals defense now must contend with a Ravens squad that has racked up 40 points in back-to-back games for the first time in team history.
Baltimore snapped a two-game slide with a 44-41 win over Seattle on Nov. 23 before posting its most lopsided win ever with a 44-6 rout of San Francisco on Sunday.
Ray Lewis returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown to cap a 17-point flurry in the second quarter and the Ravens held the 49ers scoreless in the second half to win their fourth straight home game.
“Now we can focus on Cincinnati. Everybody else is out of the way,” Ray Lewis said Sunday.
Anthony Wright had 177 yards passing and two touchdowns and NFL rushing leader Jamal Lewis ran for 78 yards and a score for a Baltimore offense which earlier this month went eight straight quarters without a touchdown.
“This is a complete game for us, the kind of game we’re capable of having,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “It’s what we’re going to need the rest of the way to get done what we want to get done.”
Wright will start his fourth straight game after spending most of the season as the third-string quarterback. In his three starts, he has thrown for 608 yards, just one interception and six touchdowns, including five to wideout and former University of South Carolina teammate Marcus Robinson.
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