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Rocking Ravens ready for reeling rivals

September 19, 2010

CINCINNATI (AP) -- After an offseason in which big-name receivers corralled a bunch of money and the offense took on more of a vertical look, the Ravens suddenly have become a chic pick to win the AFC North, even though the team they're trying to catch added a few divas of their own.

Now, two games in, the new-look Ravens get to show whether they measure up to the champs.

Baltimore's visit to Cincinnati today is a chance to show the Bengals that there's no clear path to the playoffs. The Bengals (0-1) ran the table last season, going 6-0 in the division for the first time in their history.

The Ravens (1-0) can end all that perfection.

"We're looking it as, we want to dethrone them," said receiver Anquan Boldin, Baltimore's biggest offseason addition. "We definitely don't want to go 0-2 against them this year. We have our goals set, and we want to win the division. The only way we can do that is to beat them.

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"It would be a nice start for us to beat them at their place."

There's a lot at stake for such an early game. Baltimore has a chance to not only scramble the division, but the defending champs as well. The Bengals, after all, are coming off an opening 38-24 loss at New England that raised questions about their preparation, attitude and commitment to defending their title.

"We need to establish ourselves and do some of the things we did last year that made us successful," running back Cedric Benson said. "Last year, what we did got us a long way to where we wanted to be, which is in the playoffs. I think it's important this year that we stick with our guns."

Last year, the Bengals made only their second playoff appearance since 1990 by reinventing themselves. They became a run-first offense that relied on grinding out yards, allowing an up-and-coming defense to take it from there. In effect, they beat the Steelers and Ravens at their own game.

During their two-game sweep of Baltimore, in fact, the defense allowed only two touchdowns. Benson topped 100 yards each game, ending Baltimore's streak of 39 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.

There have been some changes since then.

Cincinnati signed receiver Terrell Owens at the start of training camp to give the offense another deep threat. The Bengals threw the ball 50 times and ran it only 25 times in the loss to New England, trying to erase a large deficit fast.

Now comes an even tougher test.

The Ravens raced out to a rollicking start Monday, holding the Jets to a mind-numbing six first downs during a 10-9 win at New Meadowlands Stadium. With 35-year-old linebacker Ray Lewis leading the way, Baltimore thumped the Jets' blockers, receivers and quarterback Mark Sanchez all game long.

"They're kind of a bully defense," Bengals offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said. "If they can beat up on you early, they stay that way. So you have to come out and really take 'em on."

Last year, the Bengals were able to make the Ravens' offense one-dimensional, forcing them to move the ball only in short chunks. Baltimore then brought in Boldin, Donte' Stallworth and former Bengal T.J. Houshmandzadeh to try to get the ball down the field.

Stallworth broke his left foot during the preseason, prompting the Ravens to replace him with Houshmandzadeh on Sept. 7. He finished third on Cincinnati's career receiving list after eight years with the Bengals, leaving as a free agent after the 2008 season.

It will be Houshmandzadeh's first game against his former team, back in the city where his career flourished. He's likely to be more of a spectator on Sunday, given that he's still learning the offense.

"I had one catch Monday," Houshmandzadeh said. "We won. I can't remember the last time I was not involved in a game. It was weird for me when we had the ball to stand on the sidelines and wait to be called in. That was different for me. It's something I'm going to have to get used to initially."

The Ravens didn't do a lot against a Jets defense that is among the league's best. They'll be facing a Bengals defense still smarting from the opener, when it got taken apart by Tom Brady. The Bengals finished fourth in defense last season and were expecting to challenge for the league's top spot.

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer blamed himself for the opening collapse, saying he put too much into the game plan. He has simplified things for the Ravens.

"I don't know what we are right now," Zimmer said. "Now we'll find out. This one won't be on me this week. This will be on the players this week. If they don't play good, it will be on them. I'll take the (blame for the) last one, but that's the last one I'm taking."

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