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Surging Bengals stifle Ravens to stay in playoff hunt

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Playing with a chance to win a title, the
Baltimore Ravens crossed midfield once in the first three quarters.
Their fearsome defense got caught flat-footed by a sandlot play.

Maybe T.J. Houshmandzadeh is right after all.

Houshmandzadeh caught a 40-yard touchdown pass on a flea-flicker
Thursday night, sparking the Cincinnati Bengals to a 13-7 victory
that kept the AFC North title up for grabs.

"It's huge," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "We're rolling
now. Hopefully we'll wind up getting a spot in the playoffs."

A surprisingly stout Bengals defense is keeping them in
contention.

Coming off a 30-0 shutout in Cleveland, one of the NFL's
lowest-ranked defenses held Baltimore (9-3) scoreless until Steve
McNair threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mason with 1:01 to
play.

Even though it missed out on a second straight shutout, the
defense did something that no other Cincinnati unit has done: go
seven straight quarters without allowing a point.

"We've put a couple of complete games together," coach Marvin
Lewis said.

The Ravens had won five in a row and were coming off their most
complete game of the season, a 27-0 victory over Pittsburgh. With a
chance to win the AFC North title outright, Baltimore's offense
came apart, crossing midfield only once in the first three
quarters. Keiwan Ratliff clinched it by recovering the onside kick
after Baltimore's late score.

"It's a lost opportunity," tight end Todd Heap. said. "We had
a chance to come in here and win the division. Give them some
credit. A lot of things went their way tonight. We just never got
in the groove."

All of it supported Houshmandzadeh's main point: Right now,
Cincinnati (7-5) just might be the better team.

"I still feel the same way," he said.

After the Ravens won 26-20 on Nov. 5, the long-haired receiver
insisted that everyone knows the Bengals are better. He repeated it
again this week, getting a rise out of some of the Ravens. Safety
Ed Reed suggested that Houshmandzadeh should just shut up.

The Ravens were in no position to argue after Houshmandzadeh
caught 10 passes for a season-high 106 yards, including the
trick-play touchdown that made it 13-0 early in the second half and
allowed the defense to dig in on a rainy night.

"I thought we played great in every area tonight," Palmer
said. "They didn't do a whole lot different. We just played
better."

So, did the win prove that Cincinnati is better?

"In a sense," said Bengals receiver Chad Johnson, who had
eight catches for 91 yards. "We're 1-1. We'll see who's the better
team if we have to face them again in the playoffs."

The Ravens would love it.

"I'd play them every day of the week," linebacker Bart Scott
said. "We missed an opportunity, but our destiny is still in our
hands. We might see them again. We might not."

The Bengals don't usually resort to trick plays -- their offense
has enough firepower to beat teams straight-up. They did something
different against one of the league's nastiest defenses.

On their first drive of the second half, Palmer handed off to
Rudi Johnson, who then flipped the ball back to him. Houshmandzadeh
was well beyond the coverage when Palmer let fly with the
flea-flicker pass.

Reed was the only player close to Houshmandzadeh when he caught
the ball at the 12-yard line and ran untouched into the end zone.

Palmer had a solid showing against a defense that led the league
in interceptions, ranked second in sacks and was third in points
allowed. The Ravens rarely got to Palmer, who was on the mark on a
rainy night -- 21-of-32 for 234 yards with only two sacks.

More stunning was the Bengals' defense.

Cincinnati's defense plummeted to last in the league rankings
after giving up 42 second-half points to San Diego and nearly 600
yards to New Orleans. The defense got itself straightened out
during the shutout in Cleveland, its first in 17 years.

It was even more impressive against Baltimore.

Baltimore crossed midfield only in the first half, and came away
empty when Matt Stover missed a 29-yard field goal in the closing
seconds. He made the kick on his first try, but the Bengals
strategically called timeout just before the snap.

On the second try, holder Sam Koch struggled with a bad snap and
the kick went to the left, only Stover's second miss in 21 tries
this season.

The Ravens knew then that it wasn't their day.

By contrast, Shayne Graham connected from 23 and 27 yards in the
first half, giving the Bengals an early lead and a chance to relax.

Baltimore played the second half without returner B.J. Sams, who
broke the fibula in his lower right leg while returning the
kickoff. His right foot twisted awkwardly, and he was taken off the
field on a cart with his right ankle in a protective brace.

Game notes
Ravens FB Justin Green hurt his right ankle in the third
quarter and didn't return. ... Bengals second-string center Eric
Ghiaciuc sprained his right knee late in the first half and didn't
return. Center Ben Wilkerson made his NFL debut in the second half.
... Palmer's passer rating was 97.7, ending his streak of three
straight games above 120.