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Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who has been unflappable all season long, showed signs of breaking in the second half when he was picked off twice and fumbled another time. The Ravens scored on their first play from scrimmage after both interceptions, seemingly delivering a knockout shot to a young Bengals team.
"To be able to capitalize like that on those two turnovers and turn them into 14 points was obviously the difference in the game," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said.
But Dalton and the Bengals never quit.
After the Ravens took a 31-14 lead in the fourth quarter, Dalton responded with two scoring drives. The first came on a 49-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell, cutting the Ravens lead to 31-21.
On the Bengals' next drive, Dalton drove 71 yards down the field in 10 plays, and finished the drive with a 23-yard field goal by Mike Nugent, making the score 31-24.
"Dalton was better than we expected," Ravens cornerback Ladarius Webb said. "We knew he was good, but not that good."
The Bengals' field goal came after a third-down pass to Jermaine Gresham that was originally ruled a touchdown was overturned by the referees because the ball came loose as Gresham fell to the ground. The ruling of an incomplete pass forced the Bengals to kick a field goal, which kept the Ravens' lead at seven points.
"It changed the entire dynamic of the game," Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayenbadejo said.
"Obviously I'm a little biased by the way it went," Harbaugh added, "but you have to complete the catch going to the ground."
On their next drive, the Ravens offense couldn't run out the clock and the Bengals had one final drive to tie the game. But the Ravens defense came up with a big stop in their own red zone with 28 seconds left, sealing the game and first place in the division.
"Somebody had to step up and make a play, and that's what ended up happening," said Ravens rookie defensive lineman Pernell McPhee, who sacked Dalton on fourth down to finish the victory.
An opportunistic defense and strong running game were keys to the victory.
After a week where he carried just five times, Rice was a huge part of the offense, carrying 20 times for 104 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Joe Flacco finished with 270 yards and two touchdowns and one interception on 17-of-27 passing.
Rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith also had a huge day, catching six passes 165 yards and one touchdown. That is the most receiving yards for a rookie in a single game in Ravens history.
"We played a very balanced game today," Rice said. "It was a total team effort."
The Ravens again fell behind early, but then went on to score 17 unanswered points to take a two-score lead in the second half.
The Bengals struck first, on a seven-yard touchdown run by Cedric Benson to cap off a seven-play, 82-yard drive. Dalton led the Bengals down the field, picking up yardage in big chunks, as much of the damage was done by a 47-yard pass to Jerome Simpson.
Chris Carr was flagged for pass interference on the drive for not turning around to play the ball in the air, and that gave the Bengals first-and-goal from the seven. Benson then finished the job to put the Bengals up 7-0.
The Ravens started slow, picking up a combined 31 yards and one first down on their first three drives. Then they started to put things together.
Baltimore caught a break with 13:05 left in the second quarter when Cincinnati's punter Kevin Huber shanked a punt for 15 yards, giving the Ravens starting field position at their own 45-yard line.
Four plays later, the Ravens were in the end zone.
That first touchdown came on a 35-yard pass to Anquan Boldin, who changed his route in the middle of the field and got open as Flacco was scrambling out of the pocket. Flacco checked down to Boldin and the veteran receiver found the open part of the field, then ran about 20 yards after the catch to get into the endzone, tying the game 7-7.
"I was on the same page with him and the defense just kind of overpursued everything," Flacco said. "There was no one left over there."
Cincinnati then went three-and-out on their next drive and the Ravens offense wasted no time getting back into the end zone.
Flacco hit Smith with two passes for 62 yards to open the ensuing drive, then Rice ended up plunging in from one yard out to give Baltimore a 14-7 lead.
Late in the first half, Flacco was intercepted by Nate Clements in Baltimore territory with the Ravens driving. The interception gave the Bengals the football at the Ravens 36-yard line with 1:24 left in the half, and Dalton ended up getting intercepted by Ed Reed on a heave to the end zone.
On the opening drive of the second half, the Ravens marched right down the field thanks to a 59-yard run by Rice, but they ended up stalling inside the 10-yard line and settled for a field goal to take a 17-7 lead.
The Bengals wouldn't quit, and on their first drive of the second half they drove 80 yards in seven plays to cut the Ravens' lead to 17-14. The big play on that drive came on a 37-yard pass to Brian Leonard, who snuck open in the Ravens secondary after Dalton was able to avoid a blitzing Cary Williams. A few plays later, Benson again capped off the drive with a short touchdown run.
The Raven defense then came up with two big plays.
Rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith intercepted Dalton, which set up a two-yard touchdown run by Rice. On the Bengals' next drive, Dalton was picked off by Webb, and Flacco then hit Smith on a 38-yard touchdown pass on the Ravens' first play to give them a 31-14 lead.
Baltimore appeared to be in control, but the Bengals refused to go away and came up with the fourth-quarter scores to make it close.
Dalton finished with 373 passing yards on 24-of-45 passing, and the Bengals had 483 of total offense.
But the Ravens defense had one final stop in them at the end, and now they are sitting atop of the division, with a Thanksgiving showdown against the San Francisco 49ers looming.
"This one felt special," Rice said. "[We know] it's a short week, but right now we're sitting at No. 1 in the AFC North."