For the first time in 57 regular season games, the Baltimore Ravens' defense took to the field Sunday without Ray Lewis. And with their physical and emotional leader relegated to the sideline with a toe injury, it was hard to know what to expect from Baltimore as it took on Cincinnati.
The answer, as it turned out, was a little bit of everything.
Baltimore gave up a whopping 483 yards to the Bengals, including 373 yards passing to rookie Andy Dalton, who was playing without an injured A.J. Green, his top receiver. Yet, despite Cincinnati moving the ball up and down the field, the Lewis-less Baltimore defense made the two biggest plays of the game and later came up with a clutch stand in the closing seconds.
Those two huge plays came on back-to-back Bengals possessions in the second half. With the Ravens clinging to a 17-14 lead near the end of the third quarter and scuffling on offense, Jimmy Smith picked off Dalton in Cincinnati territory, setting up a Ray Rice touchdown run. A few moments later, Lardarius Webb jumped a Dalton pass for another interception, which again led to seven Baltimore points.
Just like that, with minimal help from the offense, the Ravens had a seemingly comfortable 31-14 edge.
Dalton regrouped, though, guiding Cincinnati to 10 unanswered points and then driving the Bengals to the Baltimore 7 in the waning seconds. The Ravens' defense rose up again, breaking up two passes, forcing an intentional grounding and then sacking Dalton on 4th-and-17 to end it and wrap up the win.
It wasn't pretty. It wasn't a trademark Baltimore defensive performance.
But it was good enough for a 31-24 win, which propelled the Ravens back into first place in the AFC North at 7-3.
Lewis' health going forward could be the deciding factor in how far this Baltimore team goes, but give its defense some credit -- maybe not too much credit, given the numbers Cincinnati put up -- for holding the fort in his absence Sunday.
The Ravens did receive an assist in the fourth quarter, after Jermaine Gresham's apparent touchdown was overturned. Had Cincinnati wound up with a TD on that play instead of the three points it settled for, the Bengals could have booted through a chip-shot field goal late to send the game to overtime.
It's hard to pin this game on one play or one call, however, because that wouldn't do justice to the wild back-and-forth it held.
No NFL team wants to bank on moral victories, but the Bengals have to feel decent about how they made the Ravens sweat, one week after taking Pittsburgh to the wire. Cincinnati came out early and delivered an uppercut on its second possession, marching right through the teeth of Baltimore's defense for a touchdown and 7-0 lead.
In the end, Dalton's costly mistakes -- not to mention Baltimore WR Torrey Smith's 165 yards and a touchdown -- turned out to be too much, but the AFC North is closer to being a permanent three-team race (sorry, Cleveland) than it has in awhile.
The Bengals nearly turned the division completely on its head Sunday. A Cincinnati win would have dropped the Ravens a full game back of both the Bengals and Steelers. Cincinnati now faces an uphill battle to get back in it.
The Ravens, meanwhile, avoided a major letdown and retook control of the division -- if Baltimore wins out, Pittsburgh cannot do any better than second place.
And we have to credit Lewis, even in his absence, for Sunday's Ravens win.
If there's one thing Lewis has brought to the table constantly, no matter the circumstance, it's a non-stop motor. Baltimore's defense was far from its best Sunday -- in a lot of ways, this was maybe its worst defensive performance of the season.
Still, when the Ravens needed a big play or a crucial stop, someone answered the call. That hearkens back to Lewis' influence, his energy rubbing off on the entire team, even as he stood in street clothes during a Baltimore game for the first time since 2007.--CHRIS BURKE