Something's not quite right in Cincinnati

BALTIMORE -- Call it a classic case of assault and flattery.

With a touch of pragmatism eventually thrown in for good measure.

In a 26-20 victory Sunday that gave Baltimore a 6-2 record and opened up a commanding two-game divisional lead at the midway point of the season, Ravens defenders spent most of the afternoon bullying the Cincinnati Bengals and much of the postgame interview session bragging on their AFC North rivals.

Keep anyone talking long enough, though, and there's a good chance that rhetoric will invariably turn to reality. And as Baltimore free safety Ed Reed reviewed Sunday's results and took a mental inventory of where things stand in the division, he acknowledged the defending AFC North champions are in trouble.

"They're still the Bengals, and they've still got that explosive potential, you know?" said Reed, who scored a first-quarter touchdown. "I mean, you saw at the end, when they made it a one-score game, and we had to keep telling ourselves they were just one big play from stealing this [game] from us. But the bottom line is, we hung on, and they took the loss.

"So, yeah, they're hurting, man. They're hurting right now."

The operative term emanating from Baltimore's locker room, starting with coach Brian Billick down through his entire roster it seemed, was huge. It was hard to find a Ravens coach, player or team official who didn't somehow find an excuse to invoke the H-word. So just how big was the second straight win with Billick calling the plays in place of deposed offensive coordinator Jim Fassel?

Well, it's probably a tad premature to start tossing dirt on the Bengals' playoff chances, but it might not be a bad idea to get out the shovels.

After a 3-0 start, Cincinnati has lost four of its past five, the lone victory a three-point win against Carolina on Oct. 22 in which the Panthers squandered at least a late tie when Jake Delhomme threw a red-zone interception. There is clearly something missing from the Bengals, especially in terms of how Cincinnati's offense compares to its high-octane ratings of a year ago. And while there is a half-season in which to get back to the form of 2005, Sunday didn't offer much positive reinforcement.

Cincinnati's Chris Perry fumbled the opening kickoff at the Bengals' 34-yard line, and the Ravens cashed in six plays later on Jamal Lewis' two-yard touchdown run. On the ensuing series, Carson Palmer overthrew wide receiver Chad Johnson on a deep hook route, and Samari Rolle intercepted. The veteran cornerback returned the pickoff 24 yards before lateraling to Reed, who dashed the final 25 yards for the Ravens' second touchdown in 93 seconds.

Less than five minutes into the game, it was the last time Baltimore would get into the end zone, with Matt Stover's four field goals (43, 25, 36 and 35 yards) accounting for the rest of the scoring. But Cincinnati could never get beyond its disastrous start, and now there have to be doubts about whether the youthful and oftentimes overly petulant Bengals will be able to overcome a month-long stretch of poor play.

Publicly, at least, Bengals players spoke with confidence about moving beyond their current 4-4 record.

"We are better than Baltimore," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who seems to have supplanted Johnson as Palmer's go-to receiver. "We know we're better than Baltimore, and they know it. We've got better players than they do."

If that's indeed the case, they'd better start playing better.

Houshmandzadeh is a terrific receiver, arguably one of most underrated players in the entire league, but like a lot of his teammates, he is often overcome by hubris. For whatever reason, the Bengals conveniently lose track of the fact that, under coach Marvin Lewis, they've never won more than a division title. Sure, the catastrophic knee injury suffered by Palmer on the opening series of Cincinnati's wild-card loss to Pittsburgh last January might have deprived the Bengals of advancing deep into the playoffs. But this is a club that clings to the absence of Palmer like a drowning man clings to a hunk of driftwood and believes that a Super Bowl engagement was its birthright had Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen not crashed into the left knee of its quarterback.

On a fourth-and-4 play from the Cincinnati 30 with 1:59 remaining, Palmer threw for Houshmandzadeh, who had nickel cornerback Ronnie Prude draped all over him. No completion. No flag. No comeback for the Bengals. Houshmandzadeh took off his helmet and banged it to the ground, drawing a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

"It shows a lack of class," Marvin Lewis said of the play, "and right at that point, we don't need it. So, we just have to hold on. Those things get you out of kilter and we can't let it happen."

The Bengals are a team, though, out of kilter in many ways right now.

Palmer completed just 12 of 26 passes for 195 yards, with one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 52.6. Sacked twice, he was still under pressure much of the afternoon by a Baltimore defense that cleverly varied its fronts and blitz angles. As much as Palmer and his teammates try to deny it, the Bengals quarterback is just a little off with his accuracy, sometimes by a matter of only inches. But those inches must seem like yards right now to a sputtering Cincinnati offense that managed 275 yards and had just one third-down conversion in 10 tries.

Said Reed: "It just seems that, while they still want to be a deep-ball team, they've been more patient this year. I don't know why. I'll let them try to explain it. But it seems like they're trying to put more drives together this year rather than going for the quick score."

Defensively, the Bengals are still battling their old twin bugaboo, the inability to stop the run or get off the field on third down. On Sunday, it was more of the latter. Jamal Lewis, who averaged 123.3 rushing yards and scored eight touchdowns in nine previous games against Cincinnati, was held to 72 yards on 24 attempts. But quarterback Steve McNair completed 21 of 31 passes for 245 yards and no interceptions, and managed the game nicely.

In the first half, McNair converted on five of six third-down plays on which the Ravens needed six yards or more to move the chains. On those plays, McNair was 5 of 6 for 80 yards as Baltimore jumped to a 17-7 lead.

For the game, the Ravens had only six third-down conversions on 15 attempts, part of the reason they settled for four Stover field goals in the final 55 minutes. But the Ravens registered 37:24 in time of possession, ran off 19 more snaps than Cincinnati (69-50), had four possessions that lasted nine or more plays and four series on which they held the ball six minutes or longer.

"We could just never make a play to get them off the field," said Bengals free safety Madieu Williams, who had a game-high 12 tackles, but who also was part of a Cincinnati secondary that struggled all day to contain wide receiver Mark Clayton (eight catches, 73 yards) and tight end Todd Heap (four receptions, 84 yards). "We never stepped up. We never put ourselves in a position to finish the comeback."

Because of what has transpired in the past, especially two years ago when Palmer earned big-time stripes by rallying the Bengals to a near-incomprehensible 27-26 victory here, the Ravens were wary of Cincinnati's comeback potential. Wary but never really worried.

"That kind of stuff, I think, is behind us," said strongside linebacker Adalius Thomas, who lined up in at least five different positions Sunday and constantly kept Cincinnati's offensive line trying to figure out the right blocking assignments. "I mean, we're just not the same team."

Neither, it seems, are the Bengals.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.