CINCINNATI (AP) -The last two AFC North champs going head-to-head. The league's most ornery defense digging in against one of its sexiest offenses. Chad Johnson running his mouth at Ray Lewis.
Playfully, of course.
``I'm really looking forward to it,'' said Johnson, the Bengals receiver who led the league in yards last season. ``This is more than just a football game Monday. It's going to be a show.''
The opener between the defending champion Baltimore Ravens and the former champion Cincinnati Bengals is quite an opening act for one of football's best mini-dramas. The AFC North should be quite a show - Johnson is right about that - all season long.
The Ravens with their rock 'em, sock 'em defense. The Bengals with their air-it-out offense. The Steelers with their resolve to get back to playoff form. The Browns with all their problems.
They'll probably spend the entire season beating each other up - with the Browns getting the worst of it - to get the honor of representing what is by some measures the league's toughest division.
A game like this could wind up being vital down the line.
``You're talking about a team in your division,'' said Lewis, the Ravens linebacker. ``So the outcome is, can we get a 'W' on the road? Can they keep a 'W' at home? It's a crucial game at the end of the day.''
And a most intriguing matchup.
Baltimore won the division by five games last season, a domination built on defense. The Ravens gave up the fewest points and yards in the league on their way to a franchise-best 13-3 mark.
With playmakers like Lewis and Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed and Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, the defense is a nightmare - to every team except one.
The Bengals know how to handle it.
Cincinnati has won four of the teams' last five games, including a 42-29 victory in 2005 that was Carson Palmer's coming-out performance. The Bengals swept the Ravens that year, on their way to the division title and their only winning record since 1990.
The reason? The Bengals' veteran line, anchored by tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones, can handle whatever the Ravens throw at them, giving Palmer time to find Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh open downfield.
In those five games, Palmer has completed 69 percent of his passes for 1,360 yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. His passer rating in those games is 108.2.
``We match up really well with them,'' said Palmer, who has a pair of 300-yard games against the Ravens. ``When you have Willie and Levi, those are good matchups because those are just such good tackles. (The Ravens) do confuse you and confuse the quarterback, but our offensive line has played consistently well against them, especially in the passing game.''
That could be what decides this one.
The Bengals have questions about both tackles heading into the opener. Jones was limited in training camp because he was coming off knee surgery, and complained after the final preseason game that he wasn't getting enough time in practice to be effective in the opener.
It's unclear whether Anderson, a 12th-year veteran, will play at all. He missed all the preseason games and most practices with chronic pain in his foot.
``Once Monday night gets here, we'll see how it goes,'' Anderson said. ``I'm pushing it as far as I can push it. With one week's preparation for a great team like Baltimore, it's going to be a tough day for me, playing against a defense like that. But I should be fine. I think my teammates can back me up if I'm not 100 percent.''
Compounding the problems: Eric Ghiaciuc has a stiff neck that leaves the Bengals with questions about their center as well. It's a bad time to have a beat-up line.
``Everything they do is to create confusion and intimidation,'' said Andrew Whitworth, the backup left tackle. ``They have a lot of great athletes on that side of the ball. You have to be calm and understand what they're doing. You have to be focused.''
That goes for the receivers, too.
Johnson's customary trash talk has been toned down leading up to the game, the ultimate sign of respect. He even called Lewis, one of his friends in the league, to make nice. Johnson is planning a new celebration if he scores against the Ravens, and wanted to make sure it didn't rub them the wrong way.
``First of all, he called me to say, 'Bro, I don't want you to be mad at me,''' the Ravens linebacker said, chuckling. ``I was like, 'Chad, (be) you.'''
In other words, bring it on.

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