CINCINNATI (AP)—What was left of the Bengals held on for a win that hurt so good.
With wounded players shuffling off the field in waves, Cincinnati pulled off the kind of victory Monday night that could set the tone for a season—that is, assuming no one else gets hurt.
“We know it’s going to be a hard-fought game when we play these guys— tough, physical,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “It’s important to win the physical football games because you put so much into it.”
In a bruising season opener matching the last two AFC North champs, the Bengals (1-0) were the last one standing—barely. Baltimore (0-1) had a chance to tie it in the closing seconds with Steve McNair sitting on the bench, out with a strained groin.
Kyle Boller drove the Ravens to the 1-yard line, where a penalty and Baltimore’s sixth turnover sealed it. Todd Heap was called for pushing off on his touchdown catch, then had a pass bounce off his shoulder and into the hands of diving lineman Michael Myers with 1:13 to go.
“It’s tough to lose like this when you’re right there,” Boller said.
Even tougher for McNair, who had a hand in four of the Ravens’ six turnovers. One pass slipped out of his hand and was returned 34 yards by linebacker Landon Johnson for a touchdown. His tipped interception set up Carson Palmer’s go-ahead touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
“I think the defense answered every question,” said Palmer, who was 20-of-32 for 194 yards with two touchdowns. “What did they have, six, eight, seven turnovers? Every time I looked up, I heard the crowd and I figured it was another turnover.”
It made the difference in a game of attrition.
The Bengals had to work with a makeshift offensive line missing three starters by the second quarter. They also briefly lost kicker Shayne Graham, costing them on an extra-point try.
Even receiver Chad Johnson limped off at one point, evidently suffering from a cramp. The Pro Bowl receiver and incessant self-promoter came up big for the Bengals, catching five passes for 95 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown.
“I told you I would give you a show,” Johnson said.
Both teams overcame significant injuries to set up the frantic finish.
Safety Ed Reed returned a punt untouched 63 yards for a touchdown that put the Ravens ahead 20-19 early in the fourth quarter and silenced the crowd of 66,093, the second-largest in Paul Brown Stadium’s history. Reed had to return kicks because B.J. Sams severely sprained a knee.
“It’s tough to lose when you’ve worked all offseason for the opener,” Reed said. “Mentally, you have to let it go.”
The emotional lift didn’t last long. McNair had the most to do with that.
In his second season running the Ravens’ offense, he had one of his worst games. McNair fumbled on a sack, muffed a handoff to running back Willis McGahee, and let the ball slip out of his hand on a pass attempt, setting up Landon Johnson’s easy touchdown.
“The turnovers, that’s unacceptable,” said McNair, who was 20-of-34 for 203. “I have to give my team a chance. It starts with me on five of those six turnovers. I’ve got to correct that.”
Despite all that, the defending division champs had a chance to hold the lead and pull out one of those make-or-break games on the road. Instead, McNair let it slip away with his last error.
His high pass deflected off the hands of Derrick Mason, and Robert Geathers made a diving interception that was upheld on review. Two plays later, Palmer threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the final lead. Cincinnati made the 2-point conversion on Rudi Johnson’s run.
The Ravens left town with some concerns about star players.
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis got himself in the mood for the matchup by hopping and waving his arms in the orange-striped end zone like a heavyweight getting ready for the opening bell.
He was the first one knocked out of the game.
On Cincinnati’s first pass, Lewis lowered his shoulder and leveled Houshmandzadeh. The 32-year-old linebacker got up holding his right arm, and was in the locker room getting treated for an injured biceps when Chad Johnson pulled off a touchdown celebration meant partly for him.
After his 39-yard touchdown catch, the Pro Bowl receiver jogged to the sideline and pulled out a mock blazer for the “Monday Night Football” crowd. The back of the foam garb was inscribed: Future H.O.F. 20??—a reference to the Hall of Fame.
Other than that one play, the points and yards came at a price.
The Bengals’ offensive line was missing three starters at one point: tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones, as well as center Eric Ghiaciuc. Ravens 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden left in the second quarter; he missed most of preseason with a sore big toe on his left foot.
Ray Lewis will have an MRI on his upper arm Tuesday. The Ravens think it’s just a strain. … TE Daniel Wilcox sprained his right ankle. … It was Reed’s fifth career touchdown. … The Bengals have won five of their last six against Baltimore.