CINCINNATI -- Matt Stover vindicated himself in a troubled season yesterday by kicking a 50-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Ravens past the Cincinnati Bengals, 34-31, at Cinergy Field.
A game between two of the NFL's worst teams may have been the most exciting of the year. It featured a punt return for a touchdown, long passes, a goal-line stand and a brilliant no-huddle offense that brought the Bengals back in the second half.
But the day belonged to Stover, whose winning field goal went through the middle of the uprights and touched off a Ravens celebration at midfield. It finished an 11-play, 37-yard drive led by quarterback Tony Banks that began at the Ravens' 31-yard line with 1: 43 left in the game.
Stover -- who almost lost his job to Joe Nedney earlier this season after having to hold off Scott Bentley in training camp -- had made only one of four previous attempts from 50 yards or more this season. Stover had to endure two straight timeouts, one by the officials, who questioned a 4-yard pass to tight end Aaron Pierce to set up the field goal, and the other by the Bengals, to sweat him.
"I didn't know what the first one was," Stover said. "I knew there was a timeout, but I didn't realize until after it was said they were reviewing the play. When they did the other timeout, you can expect that, but when you are back there ready to kick the field goal, you don't think about that. I've been in the league awhile, and I know how to han dle that. You get out of the way, don't let them taunt you and just do what you have to do.
"The conditions out there were incredible. I have yet to kick in Cincinnati out of the 10 times that I have played here with these kinds of conditions. They were good. I was telling myself, 'Don't hit it hard. Just hit it easy and give it a shot.' The conditions were so good, and the ball was flying well."
When asked if he felt vindicated, Stover said: "This is all just part of being a kicker. It's a roller coaster. You never get too high, you never get too low. But I'm 31 with a few gray hairs."
It was a nervous time for the Ravens, Bengals and an announced crowd of 43,279. The Ravens (4-6) had taken a 31-14 lead in the third quarter with three unanswered touchdowns. After Tony Banks threw a 73-yard pass over the middle to Billy Davis to the Bengals' 2, running back Errict Rhett ran around left end for the touchdown to put the Ravens ahead 17-14 with 8: 18 left in the third quarter.
On the Ravens' next series, Banks passed 25 yards to Patrick Johnson for a touchdown on a stop-and-go move to the right corner of the end zone, and when cornerback Duane Starks intercepted a Jeff Blake pass and returned it 43 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown, it looked like the Ravens had an insurmountable lead at 31-14 with 4: 38 left in the third quarter.
Maybe the Ravens felt that way, too. After all, they entered the game tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the league's No. 1-ranked defense.
"We got complacent as a team," said Ravens safety Rod Woodson. "When that happens in the NFL, it makes things worse. The next thing we knew, the Bengals had stormed back."
The Bengals came back with a no-huddle offense, and it caught the Ravens off guard, especially because defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis likes to switch personnel depending on the situation. After the Ravens went ahead by 17, the Bengals answered with a six-play, 60-yard drive that ended with Blake throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to receiver Darnay Scott with 2: 43 left in the third period.
Then came the punt return. Ravens punter Kyle Richardson hit a 56-yarder that returner Craig Yeast fielded at the 14. Two Ravens -- Davis and reserve safety Corey Harris -- blew by Yeast out of control as Yeast made it through a hole around the 25. That left Yeast with Richardson one-on-one around the Bengals' 40. As Yeast cut back toward the field from the left sideline, Bengals reserve cornerback Tremain Mack appeared to clip him. A penalty flag was thrown as Yeast ran untouched into the end zone. But the officials ruled no penalty, making the score 31-28 with 9: 09 left in the game.
"He got me," said Richardson. "Then, all of a sudden, he the official picked it up. Don't get me started about the officiating. I don't even know why there wasn't a call. They were on the Bengals' sideline and never made it over to our side to explain."
Ravens coach Brian Billick, already fined once this year for $10,000 for criticizing the officiating, said only: "I saw the clip. The official on the sideline nearest the play apparently saw the clip. I don't know what happened."
What happened was the Bengals were gaining momentum and taking apart the Ravens' defense. On its final possession of the game, Cincinnati went from its 20 to the Ravens' 1 with 2: 10 left in the game and trailing by three.
On first down, the Bengals ran fullback Clif Groce up the middle for no gain, as he was stopped by defensive ends Fernando Smith and Rob Burnett. On second down, the Bengals ran running back Corey Dillon off right guard. Again, Smith came up with a big play, stopping Dillon for a 1-yard loss. On third down, Blake faked to Dillon and threw to tight end Tony McGee in the back of the end zone. But McGee was hit by safety Rod Woodson and was unable to hold onto the ball and get a second foot down in bounds. The Bengals had to settle for a 19-yard field goal by Doug Pelfrey to tie the score with 1: 50 remaining.
"I knew we had to stop them," Smith said. "I just kept saying, 'Let's hold them for one more play, one more play.' When I saw McGee hold that ball, my heart stopped beating for a minute and then it was back to normal."
This could have been a devastating loss for the Ravens. The Bengals carved up their defense for 348 yards, 246 passing. Instead, the Ravens may have learned a lesson about fooling around even with the worst team in the NFL.
"This is going to be an ugly film to watch tomorrow," Woodson said. "We didn't play very well defensively. We didn't hold the lead. But the bottom line is that we won. I'd rather play like this and win instead of holding a team to 130 yards of offense and lose" like against Jacksonville last week.
It was the best passing performance this season by the Ravens, who threw for 225 yards. Billick got a chance to see seldom-used Johnson and Davis as receivers, and suggested they would be used more in the regular rotation next week against the Jaguars. Johnson had six catches for 73 yards and Davis caught two for 86.
The big problem for the Ravens is pass protection by the offensive line and running backs. Banks was sacked seven times. He completed 24 of 40 passes.
"They're an explosive club," Billick said. "Anybody that thinks they're not is wrong. You've got too much talent out there. The most disappointing thing is that when we had a chance to really just nail it shut, we didn't. This is something this young team has to learn to do, to maintain their focus. Again, three weeks on the road, that's what this is all about. It's a learning experience."
The Bengals scored first after a turnover by the Ravens with 9: 36 left in the first quarter. On third-and-12 from his 21, Banks dropped back to pass, but hit left guard Edwin Mulitalo in the back of the helmet and linebacker Takeo Spikes caught the deflection, giving the Bengals possession at the 25.
Six plays later, on a great play-action fake that froze safety Kim Herring, Blake found receiver Carl Pickens in the back of the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown pass as Pickens pushed off linebacker Jamie Sharper, who was covering on the play.
The Bengals didn't need a mistake to launch their next touchdown. On the first play of their next possession, Pickens blew by cornerback DeRon Jenkins for a 47-yard catch to the Ravens' 32. Then, on third-and-one from the 23, Blake again went to play-action and tossed a 23-yard touchdown to Scott, who had beaten rookie cornerback Chris McAlister on a crossing pattern, giving the Bengals a 14-0 lead with 4: 40 left in the quarter.
The quick strikes by Cincinnati seemed to startle the Ravens' defense, which gave up 118 yards in the first quarter. But the Ravens finally scored on a 25-yard field goal by Stover with 13: 25 left in the second quarter. The Ravens missed out on a great opportunity when Banks overthrew Johnson, who was open in the left corner of the end zone on third-and-six from the Bengals' 7.
Mack fumbled the kickoff after Stover's field goal, and the Ravens recovered at the Bengals' 40, but they could manage only 7 yards on their next three plays. The Ravens finally showed some offensive consistency later in the second quarter, going 78 yards in 11 plays, capped by Banks' 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg DeLong in the right flat with 54 seconds left in the half, cutting the Bengals' lead to 14-10.