Struggling in The North

The last two AFC North champions are not playing like they have a shot to win it this year.

The reigning division champion Baltimore Ravens hope to get their offense going as they face one of the league's worst defenses in a home game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Baltimore -4.5 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday's game, the over/under has been set at 44 total points (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 72% of bets for this game have been placed on Cincinnati +4.5 (View NFL Football bet percentages).

After finishing 13-3 last year en route to the AFC North crown, Baltimore (4-4) appeared poised for another division title run after winning four of its first six games. The Ravens, though, have suffered back-to-back road losses, and now look to avoid dropping three straight for the first time since a four-game skid from Oct. 23-Nov. 13, 2005.

Baltimore suffered its most lopsided loss of the season on Monday, falling 38-7 to the division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens dropped to 0-3 in division play after going 5-1 last season.

"It's not the end of the world, it's not the time to panic," quarterback Steve McNair said. "We need to have a sense of urgency to get things going."

Cincinnati (2-6) won the division with an 11-5 record in 2005 before finishing 8-8 in a 2006 season plagued by injuries and legal troubles. The Bengals opened this season with a 27-20 victory over Baltimore, but have since lost six of seven games to fall into last place.

The Bengals' record through eight games is their worst since going 1-7 en route to a 2-14 finish in 2002 - the season before coach Marvin Lewis took over.

"It's kind of all for nothing when you're 2-6, really," receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "You're 2-6, nobody cares. You're losing, nobody cares. It's all for nothing."

Baltimore's offense produced only slightly more than nothing on Monday.

The Ravens trailed 35-0 - partly because of four turnovers - before Willis McGahee's touchdown run with 1:33 left in the second quarter. Baltimore was held to a franchise record-low 104 total yards, including 40 yards passing - their lowest total since having 37 in a win at Arizona on Dec. 17, 2000.

The Ravens ran for 64 yards - 50 on 12 carries from McGahee - for their lowest rushing total since gaining 50 in a win at Tennessee last Nov. 12.

"I wouldn't even know how to begin to characterize this," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I'm just glad it's a short week and we don't have time to dwell on this."

McNair returned after missing two games with groin and back injuries, but threw for only 63 yards while completing 13 of 22 passes. He was sacked five times, intercepted once and fumbled twice - losing one.

The injury-prone veteran was replaced in the second half by Kyle Boller, who was 3-of-9 for 21 yards, but Billick said he is sticking with McNair as the starter.

Baltimore's offense is averaging 243.8 total yards and 13.0 points over the last four games.

"It ain't hard to correct what's wrong. Just don't turn the ball over and make people beat us," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You can't do that and play championship football."

This may be as good a chance as any for the Ravens offense to get untracked, facing a Bengals defense allowing 397.1 yards per game to rank second-to-last in the NFL.

Cincinnati allowed an 11th straight opponent to score at least 20 points in last Sunday's 31-22 road loss to Buffalo, giving up 479 total yards.

"We're just not a very good football team," said quarterback Carson Palmer, who completed 26 of 39 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns, including one to Houshmandzadeh.

"I don't have words for the way we feel in this locker room about this game, about this season. And it's frustrating."

The Bengals have dropped six straight road games, including an 0-4 mark this season while giving up 135 points. They have won five of the last six meetings with the Ravens, but Baltimore has won eight straight regular-season home games.

Though the Ravens gave up their highest point total in nearly two years on Monday, many of those points came off turnovers. Baltimore did hold an opponent below 300 yards for the fourth straight game, and limited the Steelers to 90 rushing yards on 39 attempts.

The Ravens rank third in the league against the run and in total defense, allowing 74.1 rushing yards per game and 270.9 overall.

They'll oppose a Bengals offense which has gained 353.1 yards per game, but only 88.4 rushing.

Rudi Johnson returned last week after missing most of the previous four games with a pulled hamstring, but was limited to 11 yards on nine carries. Kenny Watson rushed for 11 yards on four attempts as the Bengals were held to 28 yards on the ground.

Wide receiver Chad Johnson had three catches for 48 yards, but suffered a neck strain in the defeat. Earlier this week, though, Lewis said Johnson could play this weekend.

The offense could get a boost from wide receiver Chris Henry, who has completed his eight-game suspension for violating the league's conduct policy. Henry had nine receiving TDs in 13 games last season, tying Houshmandzadeh for the team lead.

Last year, Henry was suspended by the league for two games and benched for another by Lewis because of his misconduct. Henry is one of 10 Bengals that has faced criminal charges over the past year.

By: Staff Writers - Email Us

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