CINCINNATI -- In any war of attrition, like the frequent bloodlettings in the AFC North, the outcome is characteristically decided by the last man standing.
But few were willing to simply stand around Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals outlasted the Ravens because their defensive players were willing to sacrifice their bodies in the simple pursuit of the football.
The Bengals dove. And stretched. And leaped. But they rarely just stood.
Consider the play of defensive tackle Michael Myers, who preserved the 27-20 win with a diving interception of a tipped pass, culminating a heroic goal-line stand by the maligned Cincinnati defense.
"Somebody had to make a play," Myers said. "So when the ball goes up in the air like that, and the thing is just hanging up there, begging for someone to catch it, you've got to kind of figure, 'Why not me?'
"You just react. You do whatever you have to do to get that thing."
And Cincinnati did whatever it had to do to win a game in which the intensity was admirable but the quality of play forgettable, as the teams combined for eight turnovers. Myers' interception, the first of his 10-year career, is the kind of critical, crunch-time play this Cincinnati team will need in order to claim the second playoff berth of coach Marvin Lewis' tenure.
But Myers wasn't alone in the big-play department. As someone suggested in a happy Cincinnati locker room, maybe the assistant coach who is responsible for presiding over the defensive tip drill during daily practices ought to get a hefty bonus this week.
Weakside linebacker Landon Johnson scored on a 34-yard fumble return when he snatched a ball out of the air after Ravens quarterback Steve McNair was crunched by defensive end Robert Geathers and free safety Madieu Williams. That TD gave the Bengals a 19-10 lead halfway through the third quarter.
After Ed Reed gave the Ravens a 20-19 lead with an incredible 63-yard punt return, the ever-active Geathers regained the momentum for the Bengals when he got his hands under a tipped pass before it kissed off the turf, then ran back the interception 30 yards.
Then the fun began.
Following a fumble by Bengals tailback Rudi Johnson, the Ravens moved within sniffing distance of the tying touchdown. With backup Kyle Boller replacing an injured McNair (strained groin), the Ravens were able to get off a dozen snaps -- counting two penalties -- inside the Cincinnati 25-yard line, including seven from inside the 5-yard line.
What they were not able to do, though, was score.
On a third-and-goal play from the two, Boller threw for tight end Todd Heap who was about a yard deep in the end zone. The pass bounced off Heap, and then off Landon Johnson, and floated tantalizingly in the air until Myers cradled it to his chest.
"We were tired, guys were, like, dying out there, people were cramping up . . . but we still found a way to win," Bengals strong safety Dexter Jackson said. "And that's all that matters. That makes all the pain worth it, you know?"
There was plenty of pain to go around.
Both offensive line units were decimated and, at one point, center Mike Flynn was the only Baltimore starter from the 2006 season opener lined up at his usual position. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis said after the game he was playing with a ruptured triceps tendon (although the team would not confirm). Reed was forced into punt return duty because regular return man B.J. Sams was injured. And McNair, who struggled under a withering Cincinnati blitz, was forced to the sideline.
"Let's just say there were a lot of guys hurting," said Cincinnati offensive tackle Willie Anderson, whose balky foot prevented him from playing the entire game. "But the hurt would have been a lot worse had we lost this thing. You can't put that much effort into a game, play that kind of physical team and match them punch for punch, and not come out of it with a win.
"You lose a game like this and, man, you're going to be miserable for a long time."
Had the Bengals lost, they almost certainly would have rued all the scoring chances they squandered, particularly early.
With McNair under siege, Baltimore fumbled on three consecutive first-quarter possessions, but Cincinnati turned the Ravens' uncharacteristic largesse into just nine points. For once, it was the high-octane Cincinnati offense that struggled, as Palmer's accuracy was off.
The Bengals had 17 first-half plays in Baltimore territory in the first half, including 10 inside the Ravens' 25-yard line but managed just 12 points.
In the end, though, 24 of their points came off takeaways, a good sign for a team that led the NFL in turnovers two years ago but slipped in that key department in 2006. And while the Bengals didn't score on their final takeaway, it goes down as the biggest turnover of the game.
"You've got to win ugly sometimes," Myers said. "That's just how it is in this division. And you've got to do things that maybe you aren't accustomed to doing. And that's what we did here tonight."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.