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Fast start propels Ravens to 26-20 win

BALTIMORE (Nov. 5, 2006) -- The Baltimore Ravens enjoyed an outstanding start against the Cincinnati Bengals, then spent the next 55 minutes protecting the advantage.

The Ravens prevailed, and now they'll try to maintain a commanding lead in the AFC North over the next eight weeks.

Baltimore scored two quick touchdowns off turnovers and never trailed in a 26-20 victory, their second straight since coach Brian Billick took control of the offense.

"Huge win for us in the division," Billick said. "It puts us in a position to go forward and do some good things."

Steve McNair passed for 245 yards, Jamal Lewis scored a touchdown and Matt Stover kicked four field goals for the Ravens (6-2), who took a two-game lead over second-place Cincinnati.

Since Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and assumed playcalling duties, the Ravens have scored 61 points and McNair has played brilliantly. He was 21 of 30 against the Bengals after going 17 of 23 in a 35-22 win at New Orleans last week.

McNair fared far better than Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer, who went 12 of 26 for 195 yards. His first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, and his last pass was also intercepted, ending any hope the Bengals (4-4) had of finishing a comeback from a 17-0 deficit.

"In order to win, we needed to play our best -- and we didn't," Palmer said.

Chad Johnson caught four passes for 32 yards to pass Cris Collinsworth and Issac Curtis and move into second place on the Bengals' career list with 419 receptions. Carl Pickens tops the list with 530.

But Johnson was in no mood to celebrate his accomplishment after Cincinnati lost for the fourth time in five games. The Bengals are at .500 for the first time since 2004.

"We, as a team, are not playing well enough to come away with victories. No explaining necessary. No beating around the bush. As a whole, we are not playing well at all," Johnson said.

He was particularly upset about being held to four catches.

"Four? Four? That's substandard. I'm supposed to be the best player and I can't even get the ball," he said. "No excuses, I didn't get the job done."

Cincinnati, which had won three straight over Baltimore, made it interesting at the end. A 71-yard pass from Palmer to Chris Henry set up a touchdown run by Rudi Johnson that made it 23-17 early in the fourth quarter, but Baltimore responded with a field goal by Stover with 8:25 left.

After Shayne Graham kicked a 31-yarder for the Bengals, Baltimore punted and Cincinnati took over at its own 24 with 3:21 to go. On fourth-and-4 from the 30, Ronnie Prude broke up a pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Houshmandzadeh screamed for an interference call, then displayed his frustration by taking off his helmet and angrily slamming it to the ground.

"A penalty is a penalty. If it's too much pressure to call it on fourth down, you shouldn't be refereeing," Houshmandzadeh said. "He hit me before the ball got there."

That wasn't the only subject Houshmandzadeh broached after the game.

"We're just a better team than they are. We didn't win the game and I'm sure they'll get a laugh over that," he said. "But deep down, we know we're better than Baltimore and they know it. We've got better players than they do."

The game couldn't have started better for the Ravens. Six plays after Cincinnati's Chris Perry fumbled the opening kickoff at his 34, Lewis scored from the 2.

Minutes later, the Ravens went up 14-0 with their fourth defensive touchdown of the season.

On Cincinnati's third offensive play, Samari Rolle intercepted Palmer's overthrown pass at the Cincinnati 49 and ran 24 yards. As he was being tackled, he gave the ball to Ed Reed, who took it into the end zone.

"It was just a great play on his part," Reed said. "Just good awareness letting it go and knowing it was me."

Baltimore made it 17-0 in the second quarter when Stover kicked a 43-yard field goal to conclude a drive of 8 minutes, 20 seconds. It was the Ravens' longest drive since their first of the season, in Tampa Bay.

A 26-yard touchdown pass from Palmer to Houshmandzadeh enabled Cincinnati to close to 17-7 late in the half.

Two field goals by Stover made it 23-7 before Graham kicked a 51-yarder for the Bengals, the first third-quarter points against Baltimore this year.

Notes: The Ravens finished with a season-high 374 yards in offense. ... Palmer's 71-yard pass to Henry was the Bengals' longest play this season and a career long for Henry. ... Baltimore is 43-1 under Billick when leading by at least 14 points.

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