CINCINNATI—For the first time this season, there actually were jokes being told in the Ravens' locker room after a game.Team vice president David Modell was going around shaking hands, reserve Ben Cavil was bragging about how well his fellow offensive linemen played, and defensive tackle Tony Siragusa had become a comedian.
"I finally found out what's the matter with this football team. We need to give everybody a $7 million signing bonus and then we can all play like Ray," said a laughing Siragusa, alluding to the $26 million contract signed by Ray Lewis last week.
Cincinnati Bengals can make teams giddy, especially when a maligned offensive line finally shows some signs of life and creates enough holes for Priest Holmes to rush for a league high this season of 227 yards on 36 attempts.
Or when rookie cornerback Duane Starks doesn't give up a big play for the first time in three weeks and the defense holds the Bengals to 58 yards rushing. Or when the newly crowned highest-paid middle linebacker in the NFL, Lewis, comes up big with two interceptions.
The Ravens may have only beaten the lowly Bengals, 20-13, yesterday before an announced crowd of 52,571 at Cinergy Field, but after losing five of the previous six games, it was time to celebrate.
"Just take a look around the locker room," Starks said. "Look at the faces. Man, this makes it a fun ride back home. If we can play like this the rest of the year, we'll win our share of games."
Coach Ted Marchibroda said, "It was a fine win for us today. We played good football. We didn't give the thing away, didn't make as many mistakes as we have in the past. I think our football team -- it may be a little late, but I hope not -- is coming together. I told one of our coaches before the game that we were ready to play today. I saw a seriousness, a quietness. That's an awfully good sign."
This was the kind of offense the Ravens (4-7) wanted to run at the outset of the season. They wanted to pound the ball behind the offensive line and let quarterback Jim Harbaugh throw short- to intermediate-range passes.
Holmes, the second-year running back who rushed for 173 yards in his first start against the Bengals (2-9) earlier this year, then ran through the league's worst rushing defense and into the record books yesterday.
When the Ravens needed a drive to seal the win at the end of the game with the ball at their 5 with 8: 27 left and the team protecting a 20-13 lead, they ran off 16 plays, including 11 rushes from Holmes, who had 53 yards to help run out the clock.
The Ravens seldom needed to use Harbaugh, who completed nine of 18 passes for 92 yards. Holmes' single-game total was the most ever by a Baltimore running back. The previous best was 198 set in 1971 by the Colts' Norm Bulaich against the New York Jets. It also was the most ever gained against the Bengals
"He has our number," defensive lineman Michael Bankston said. "In some way or some fashion, he has our number. We've played a lot of great backs. We're making him a great back."
"I don't know what it is," Holmes said of his 6.3-yard per carry average in his 400 yards against the Bengals this season. "My line played exceptional today and also Eric Green [tight end] and Roosevelt Potts [fullback]. I knew we would play a very good game because we were focused this week. We all came as one and were ready to play."
Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden went to Marchibroda early last week and asked him to stay with the rushing attack against the Bengals. And why shouldn't he? Cincinnati was allowing 167.1 yards a game on the ground. The Ravens pushed the Bengals around even with James Atkins making his first start of the year at left guard.
Maybe the Ravens should have pushed the No. 1 defense of the Chargers around like that a week ago.
"It's something we always wanted to do," said right guard Jeff Blackshear. "Against San Diego, we only ran the ball like 10 times and then we spent the rest of the day pass blocking. We just like to roll people. Then when you have a drive like we did in the fourth period, that's when you feel good."
The Ravens had a 17-3 lead at the half. They scored on their second possession of the game as Holmes ran 56 yards down to the Bengals' 16 on a counter-trey play to the right behind Atkins and Ogden. One play after a Holmes run netted 4 yards, Harbaugh threw a 12-yard touchdown pass over the middle to fullback Potts, and the Ravens took a 7-0 lead with 9: 34 left in the first quarter.
Cincinnati went from its 24 down to the Ravens' 26 on the en- suing series, but cornerback DeRon Jenkins deflected a Paul Justin pass intended for receiver Damon Gibson at the 22, and Lewis caught the deflection for an interception that stopped the drive.
The Ravens, led by several runs from Holmes and short passes to receivers Jermaine Lewis, Michael Jackson and Green, went 62 yards on 14 plays before settling for a 34-yard field goal from Matt Stover that pushed their lead to 10-0 with 12: 23 left in the half.
The Bengals, sparked by passes of 21 yards to Carl Pickens and 18 yards to Steve Bush, answered with a 40-yard field goal from Doug Pelfrey with 6: 09 left in the half.
But after a 25-yard punt from Lee Johnson, Holmes broke a 38-yard run off a draw play down to the Bengals' 3-yard line. The Ravens tried three successive runs by Holmes, then succeeded on the fourth as Holmes dived over right guard from the 1-yard line with eight seconds left in the half.
"I knew we were going to get it in," Blackshear said. "It was only a matter of time. We were mashing them."
But the Ravens couldn't put the victory away until late in the game. The Bengals opened the third quarter with an eight-play, 51-yard drive that ended with a 34-yard field goal from Pelfrey that cut the lead to 17-6.
On the ensuing series, Potts fumbled at the Bengals' 42 to halt a drive with 8: 12 left in the period and then, about two minutes later, Harbaugh underthrew Jermaine Lewis on a fly pattern and the ball was intercepted at the Bengals' 44 by cornerback Thomas Randolph.
This time, Cincinnati capitalized on the turnover, as running back Brandon Bennett finished a nine-play, 56-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown up the middle that cut the Ravens' lead to 17-13 with 2: 09 left in the third quarter.
But Ray Lewis gave the Ravens some breathing room when he intercepted a Justin pass intended for Gibson at the Bengals' 35 and returned it 26 yards to the 9.
The Ravens tried three straight runs to Holmes for 8 yards and were going to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but fullback Kenyon Cotton was penalized for a false start and the Ravens had to settle for a 23-yard field goal from Stover.
"I know I didn't go forward before the snap," Cotton said.
Cotton was saved about five minutes later when the Ravens began their final. smash-mouth drive.
"The second one, I really read him," a smiling Lewis said of the interception. "I key dropped. I was supposed to be weak side, but I saw the receiver breaking in, so I broke on the ball, made a good read on it and got the interception."
"Talk about a guy being happy, how can you not be with all that money and two inteceptions?" Marchibroda said.
For one of the few times this season, all the Ravens were happy.