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Ravens use quick start to open two-game lead in AFC North

Nov 5, 2006 - 9:23 PM BALTIMORE (Ticker) -- Special teams and an interception return got the Baltimore Ravens off to a quick start. Matt Stover took over from there.

Musa Smith recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff, safety Ed Reed returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown and Stover kicked four field goals as the Ravens posted a 26-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in a battle of AFC North rivals.

The win enabled Baltimore (6-2) to increase its lead over the Bengals (4-4) to two games in the division.

Cincinnati had swept last year's season series en route to winning its first division title since 1990.

But now the Ravens appear to be in the driver's seat in a division which also features the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Two games, 10 games, we're halfway through and we're 6-2," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We have to get to 7-2. But this win puts us in a position to go forward and do some good things."

Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and took over the play-calling duties before Baltimore's 35-22 win at New Orleans last week. But in that game, two of the touchdowns came on interception returns by rookies Ronnie Prude and Dawan Landry.

Once again, Billick received plenty of support from his defense and special teams as the Ravens forced three turnovers.

The first two helped stake Baltimore to a 14-0 lead. It all started on the opening kickoff when Mike Smith stripped the ball from Chris Perry and Musa Smith recovered for the Ravens at the Cincinnati 34.

"Starting a game that well was huge," Billick said. "We needed ous special teams to play well and they stepped up to the challenge."

Steve McNair hit tight end Todd Heap with a 15-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage. On a 3rd-and-6, McNair connected with Mark Clayton in a 10-yard pass. Two plays later, Jamal Lewis ran for left tackle for a two-yard touchdown 2:59 into the game.

On Cincinnati's first play from scrimmage, Carson Palmer was sacked by linebacker Adalius Thomas. Two plays after that, Palmer threw a high pass over the middle for Chad Johnson, who was hit by Reed. Cornerback Samari Rolle intercepted the overthrown pass, returned it 24 yards and then lateraled it to Reed, who raced 25 yards for a touchdown, giving the Ravens a 14-0 advantage just 4:32 into the game.

"When I saw Ed come to hit him (Johnson), the ball just fell to me," Rolle said. "When I started toward the sideline, T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) had my leg and Ed was like 'Pitch it, pitch it.'"

"It was just Samari having good awareness," Reed said of his seventh career touchdown. "It was a great play on his part in making the play. I didn't take it. He gave it to me."

It was the fourth defensive touchdown of the season for the Ravens, who have forced a league-high 25 turnovers, including 17 interceptions.

Stover kicked the first of his field goals - a 43-yarder with 5:39 left in the second quarter - to increase the lead to 17-0. It capped a drive which lasted nearly 8 1/2 minutes.

"Obviously, we dug ourselves a hole," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. "It was a tough way to start the game."

Stover added field goals of 25, 36 and 35 yards to increase his streak to 34 in a row - the third-longest in NFL history.

The Bengals fought back and moved within six points on two occasions.

A 71-yard pass from Palmer to Chris Henry set up a four-yard touchdown run by Rudi Johnson with 13:31 left in the fourth quarter, pulling the Bengals within 23-17.

Baltimore responded with a drive that resulted in a 35-yard fild goal by Stover with 8:25 remaining.

Shayne Graham kicked a 31-yard field goal with 4:01 left to again pull Cincinnati within six points.

But the Bengals could get no closer. Prude broke up a pass intended for T.J. Houshmandzadeh on a 4th-and-4 play with 1:55 left. Houshmandzadeh appeared to be interfered with on the play, but no penalty was called. The receiver screamed for an interference call before taking off his helmet and angrily throwing it to the ground.

"My emotion got the best of me," Houshmandzadeh said. "I felt there should have been pass interference. He (Prude) hit me before the ball was there, and that's a penalty."

The Bengals got the ball back with 18 seconds left at their own 28, but a long pass by Palmer was intercepted by cornerback Chris McAlister, sealing the win for the Ravens, who matched their win total from last season (6-10).

McNair completed 21-of-31 passes for 245 yards and Heap finished with four catches for 84 yards.

"We jumped on these guys fast and then we wanted to keep their offense off the field," McNair said. "The offense did a great job of getting first down after first down and keeping those guys off balance and keeping Palmer off the field."

Cincinnati entered 25th against the run, but held Lewis to 72 yards on 24 carries.

"I thought we did a pretty good job of neutralizing him (Lewis)," Bengals defensive end Justin Smith said. "But McNair did a good job of running the offense efficiently. And he made plays when he needed to make plays."

Palmer completed just 12-of-26 passes for 195 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown to Houshmandzadeh with 1:06 left in the second quarter.

"It's tough, it seems impossible at times when you're playing a defense like them, and they're up early in the first quarter by 14 points," Palmer said. "It made it extremely difficult offensively. That's not saying we didn't have a chance. We didn't execute and they did."

Shayne Graham kicked field goals of 51 and 31 yards for the Bengals.

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