Baltimore Looks to Clinch AFC North Title Tonight Against Cincinnati

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The Baltimore Ravens have additional motivation to unseat the Cincinnati Bengals as the AFC North champions. It's just that the Ravens don't need further inspiration to try to disprove wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh's claims the Bengals are the better team.

The Ravens can clinch their second AFC North title in the franchise's 11-year history Thursday night if they can defeat the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Oddsmakers have made Cincinnati -3 point spread favorites (NFL Odds) for Thursday's game, the over/under has been set at 41.5 total points (NFL Sports Books).

Locking up a division title would enable the Ravens (9-2) to focus on their pursuit of securing one of the conference's two first-round byes for the postseason as well as home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

``We're not going to limit ourselves to just winning the division because if you do that, you set yourself up to lose in the playoffs,'' Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said. ``We have bigger aspirations and bigger goals than winning the division.''

Houshmandzadeh and the Bengals (6-5), though, will not concede the AFC North so easily. The wideout, who felt his team was still better than the Ravens after a 26-20 loss to them Nov. 5, refused to back down from his earlier comments but did temper them by saying the Bengals must play better this time.

``I still feel that way, but it doesn't matter what I say, we still have to play,'' Houshmandzadeh said. ``I think we're better than them. We'll find out.''

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw for only 194 yards and was intercepted twice in the first meeting between the teams, has vowed to have a better performance after watching film of the contest.

``When I say it hurts, I mean it literally hurts watching what we did against them the last time,'' said Palmer. ``We didn't play well at all. I feel we've come a long way and made a lot of progress offensively. They'll be seeing a different unit, a unit they've seen in years past but not in this past game.''

Baltimore has won five in a row - coinciding with coach Brian Billick's decision to fire offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and assume play-calling duties - and is coming off a 27-0 rout of Pittsburgh last week in which the Ravens defense registered nine sacks, tying a single-game franchise record.

The Ravens, whose other division title came in 2003, are enjoying their longest winning streak since closing out 2000 with seven straight victories en route to their Super Bowl title.

With a comfortable lead atop the AFC North, the Ravens have been able to put aside Houshmandzadeh's comments ahead of this game.

``Keep your mouth shut, man,'' Ravens safety Ed Reed said. ``Play football. I heard it. It is what it is. The game speaks for itself. If you think you're a better team, then come out and let's play football, man.''

Ravens running back Jamal Lewis - who had 66 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers - will try to continue his strong play against the Bengals, who have allowed 361.7 yards per game as the NFL's second-worst defense. Lewis has 1,182 yards, nine TDs and eight 100-yard games in 10 lifetime contests versus the Bengals.

He had 72 yards and a score in the first game this season.

Palmer and the Bengals are trying to win a third straight game and are coming off their most complete game of the season, a 30-0 rout of the Cleveland Browns in which they rolled up 388 yards and forced five turnovers. Palmer threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns, while the Bengals yielded just 203 total yards and recorded their first shutout in 17 years.

``The big thing is our offense got on the board right away,'' said safety Kevin Kaesviharn, who had two interceptions last week. ``Once you get a team in the hole, they can't run the plays that they were going to run, and you're able to keep them there.''

The Bengals, who led the NFL in turnovers forced last season, have nine takeaways in their last two games after forcing just three in their previous six contests.

Palmer has thrown nine TD passes in the last three games, and Chad Johnson has been his favorite target during his recent surge. Johnson has 24 receptions for 573 yards and five TDs in that span, the second-highest three-game yardage total in NFL history.

With 123 yards against the Browns, Johnson topped the 1,000-yard mark for the fifth straight season. He has 53 catches for 831 yards and six TDs in 11 games against the Ravens but was held to four receptions and 31 yards in the previous game this season.

Baltimore has not swept the season series from Cincinnati since winning twice in a three-week span during the 2002 season.

By: David Michaels - - Email Us

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