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No joke: Once a laughingstock, Bengals starting to garner respect

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BALTIMORE -- Wearing nothing but a towel and a knot over his right eye caused by a penalized, de-helmeting shot by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, Chad Ochocinco had a question.

"Think they respect us now?" the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver asked Sunday afternoon.

The Ravens certainly have to after the Bengals collected yet another last-second victory, this one decided by a 20-yard touchdown pass from Carson Palmer to Andre Caldwell with 22 seconds left in the game.

So do the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, AFC North teams like the Ravens who have been vanquished by the Bengals and sit behind them in the division. So should the Green Bay Packers, who like the Ravens, lost to the Bengals on their home turf.

"No, no, no," said Ochocinco, who by the second was morphing into Rocky Balboa, not because of his boxing hobby (photos) but because of his closing right eye. "The media, the fans, the world."

Is that what this is about? Respect?

Rob Carr / Associated Press
Chad Ochocinco (left) and the Bengals have won seven of their last 10 games against the Ravens.
Bengals' last 10 games against the Ravens
Date
Location
Result
Oct. 11, 2009
Baltimore
Dec. 7, 2008
Cincinnati
Sept. 7, 2008
Baltimore
Nov. 11, 2007
Baltimore
Sept. 10, 2007
Cincinnati
Nov. 30, 2006
Cincinnati
Nov. 5, 2006
Baltimore
Nov. 27, 2005
Cincinnati
Nov. 6, 2005
Baltimore
Dec. 5, 2004
Baltimore

Winning four of five games has people on notice, but there's still a lot of ball to be played and a lot of years of ineptness to overcome. The New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, they've earned respect for a much larger body of work. Even the 5-0 Denver Broncos, the only team to beat the Bengals, don't have a wealth of converts yet. Yes, the Bengals have matched last season's win total by early October, but ...

It's hard to witness what Cincinnati did en route to beating Baltimore 17-14 and not consider the Bengals a serious threat to be this season's Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins or Atlanta Falcons.

The Bengals held the NFL's third-ranked offense to one touchdown and 257 total yards. Running back Cedric Benson (120 yards, one touchdown) became the first player to rush for more than 100 yards against Baltimore's frightening defense in 39 games. And, once again, Cincinnati, which has yet to play in a game decided by more than a touchdown, won in heart-stopping fashion.

Caldwell, who caught a winning touchdown pass two weeks ago against the Steelers with 4 seconds left, broke wide open on a skinny post Sunday as the Ravens' safeties paid too much attention to Ochocinco and the wideouts on the edges.

Perfect read, perfect catch, perfect ending for a Bengals team that safety Roy Williams said enters every game with the feeling of being the other team's homecoming opponent.

"We feel that nobody takes us seriously," Williams said.

The approach is serving the Bengals well. They are performing at the sort of level expected of an NFL team. On Sunday, they also played like an overly inspired one -- although they have played motivated football since Week 1.

Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer walked the sideline, coaching while mourning, dual duty not many would ever consider, let alone execute with unwavering precision. His wife of 27 years, Vikki, unexpectedly died Thursday. Zimmer found her when he came home from work. No details of her death have been disclosed.

Devising a counter to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice would seem secondary for most. For Zimmer, it was the only way to cope. He made the decision to coach Saturday, and head coach Marvin Lewis didn't hesitate to say yes. Not for selfish reasons, but, frankly, how difficult would it have been to tell Zimmer no if that's what he wanted to do under the circumstances?

Zimmer was flanked before the game by his father, Bill, and two of his children, daughter Corrie and son Adam -- a defensive assistant for the New Orleans Saints, who were off this week. Zimmer received a lot of hugs and handshakes from coaches and friends with the Ravens.

About an hour before kickoff, Zimmer walked through the lines where Bengals players stretched, shaking their hands and wishing them good luck. It was about as ironic a scene as humanity would have it, seeing as though those in line should have been approaching Zimmer to offer him a hand of strength and encouragement.

Being what it was, Zimmer's unit, which has played hard for him and radically changed the identity of the Bengals the past two seasons, pushed itself to even greater limits against the Ravens and it finished being the more dominant for a day.

The Bengals' only real breakdown was not properly tackling Rice on a fourth-quarter swing pass that the running back turned into a dazzling 48-yard, go-ahead touchdown. When that break in the dam occurred, Cincinnati players said they could barely look at Zimmer when they returned to the sideline, thinking they let him down more than anything.

"We were mad because we should have tackled him and got him on the ground," defensive end Antwan Odom said. "The defense wanted to give everything we had for Zim. He had a tragic death, his wife. I mean, we wanted to dedicate that victory to him."

So the defense made amends by stopping Baltimore with 2:15 left and giving the ball back to Palmer to orchestrate more great theatre.

After the game, Lewis awarded the game ball to Zimmer, who finally -- finally! -- teared up and leaned on the players who have leaned on him. His dad and son, who wore a Bengals baseball hat that nobody with the Saints would have gotten mad at him for sporting on this day, were nearby and later walked out of the locker room with Zimmer.

It was a moving snapshot, knowing most of the players will be celebrating the win while Zimmer will go home to prepare a funeral.

As difficult and peculiar as things appeared, Zimmer's ability to work through his grief symbolized what has gone on with the 4-1 Bengals this season. Cincinnati has been able to compartmentalize distractions and adversity and push forward, using every means of motivation and focus needed to persevere.

Sunday's victory over the Ravens was another example. The Bengals' kicking game, which is growing more schizophrenic each week because of poor snaps from Brad St. Louis, botched an opening-drive field-goal attempt. Palmer then misread a coverage on a deep pass that -- who else? -- Ed Reed intercepted and returned 52 yards for a Baltimore touchdown during the second quarter.

Zimmer's stifling defense kept Cincinnati in the game. Cedric Benson took over in the third quarter and staked the Bengals a 10-7 lead with a 28-yard touchdown run. Then they fell behind again, and the Ravens' defense began imposing its will.

Yet the Bengals found a way, even when it looked as if they were about to crack when center Kyle Cook snapped the ball to Palmer in shotgun formation on the final drive when the quarterback wasn't looking.

The 11-play, 80-yard drive ended with the Caldwell touchdown and another Cincinnati victory. But it left the Bengals wondering if they have earned their due.

They should hope they haven't. Doing things the way they've done them has served them well. The Bengals have been laughed at long enough to know that not being the butt of a joke is respect within itself.

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