The changing of the guard is complete atop the AFC North Division.
With a 17-7 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in week nine, the Cincinnati Bengals supplanted the Ravens as the top challenger to the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the notoriously competitive division.
With their second win of the 2009 season over Baltimore, Cincinnati completed a shift that had just as much to do with the faltering Ravens as it did with the rejuvenated Bengals.
Injuries along the defensive line to Haloti Ngata and Trevor Pryce forced Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to bring four or five men on obvious passing situations, and take an uncharacteristic number of risks in running situations.
When the Ravens gambled incorrectly—or missed tackles—the Bengals were able to exploit holes for Cedric Benson (117 yards on 34 carries).
Baltimore’s fortification of the line of scrimmage also led to frequent single-coverage on the outside, allowing Chad Ochocinco and Laveranues Coles to work single-cut routes for 10-15 yard gains. When combined with Carson Palmer’s ability to utilize his arm strength and hit the square-out route with consistency, the Ravens defense was picked apart easily while the Bengals built a 17-point lead.
The Ravens’ shortcomings do not tell the whole story of Cincinnati’s takeover of the catbird seat, however; Cincinnati’s defensive unit showed why they entered the week allowing the sixth fewest points per game in the NFL.
Cornerbacks Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph each picked up an interception, but it was their ability to hold the Ravens receivers to 84 combined yards—mostly through single coverage—that made them the defensive headliners.
Joseph and Hall had some help from the Bengal front four of Jonathan Fanene, Tank Johnson, Domata Peko and Robert Geathers who combined for 1.5 of the Bengals four sacks without defensive end Antwan Odom—out for the year with a torn Achilles tendon.
Odom’s ability to quickly collapse the pocket or force a double-team was missed at moments, particularly the Raven’s 65 yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter. But Fanene’s speed wore down Baltimore left tackle Jared Gaither as the game wore on, drawing two holding penalties and forcing Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to keep and extra blocker in the backfield while the Ravens were passing on every down.
The Bengals may have gotten an extra push of assistance, but Sunday was the day when they reached that pinnacle that they have been chasing since 2005: they are now atop the hill of the AFC North.
All that is left is to knock off their neighbors in Pittsburgh. That comes next week.