CINCINNATI – On a cold, wet afternoon that turned fingertips numb, receiver Mark Clayton had the touch.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (11) is pursued by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs (55) in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 30, 2008, in Cincinnati.
(AP Photo/David Kohl)
Clayton put a little sizzle into Baltimore's evolving offense Sunday, throwing a touchdown pass and making a spectacular one-handed catch for another during a 34-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals that kept the Ravens in the AFC North chase.
"I just think it's exciting the way we're playing football right now," linebacker Ray Lewis said.
Now that their offense is coming around, the Ravens (8-4) have it all going for them.
Baltimore has won six of its past seven games with its renowned defense and an offense coming into its own behind rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. Each week, the Ravens give him a little more of the playbook.
Against the Bengals (1-10-1), they added a page for Clayton, a former first-round draft pick who emerged as a dual threat on a cold, rainy afternoon. In the third quarter, Clayton lined up to the left, took a handoff from Flacco and headed for the right sideline, selling the play as a reverse.
Cornerback Leon Hall fell for it, letting Derrick Mason run free down the right sideline. Clayton's 32-yard touchdown pass — the first since high school — was as easy as they come.
"I was just playing outside defense," Hall said. "It was man-to-man. He was my guy to cover."
The Ravens had practiced the play a few of times, but never had the courage to put it in a game plan.
"We've known he could do it," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's the best one he's thrown yet. He'll be lobbying for more of those."
Clayton's next catch was as tough as it gets. He ran past the stumbling Hall, stretched out his right hand and grabbed Flacco's pass at the 30-yard line, then completed the 70-yard play that set the Bengals on course for their most lopsided loss since 2000.
"I was just running," said Clayton, who finished with five catches for 164 yards. "I looked back and the ball was in the air. I just kind of stuck my hand out in the air."
Flacco had another beyond-his-years showing, completing 19-of-29 for 280 yards and two touchdowns. In the past seven games, the first-round pick from Delaware has thrown 11 touchdowns with only two interceptions, taking more chances with his receivers.
"I think you see they're starting to come alive and make all the plays, not just one out of so many," Flacco said. "I'm starting to trust them more, so I'm putting the ball where they're going to get it."
A light mist turned the 40-degree afternoon nasty and numbing — perfect conditions for the Ravens' defense. They forced the Bengals to tie a club record with 11 punts. The Bengals managed only six first downs, matching the club record last matched in 1992.
On 10 of their 14 possessions, the Bengals failed to get a first down.
"We take pride in three-and-outs," said Lewis, who batted down one of Ryan Fitzpatrick's passes and then bowled him over in a defining moment. "Just the way guys are flying to the ball, it's incredible."
The Ravens threw a different type of chill into Fitzpatrick, repeatedly knocking him down and swatting his passes away. Fitzpatrick, filling in for the injured Carson Palmer for the seventh straight game, got so discombobulated that the ball sailed out of his hand as he tried to make one throw.
Telling statistic: On the Bengals' first six possessions, they ran 18 plays and managed only 20 yards.
"Obviously, we're in a funk," said Fitzpatrick, who ended up the team's leading rusher for the third time this season. "We have personnel that's better than these statistics."
The few thousand fans left in the stands cheered when third-string quarterback Jordan Palmer came in during the closing minutes, then booed when his first pass was intercepted by Jim Leonhard and returned 36 yards for a touchdown.
"I couldn't believe he threw it," said Leonhard, who hadn't scored a touchdown since high school. "I was shocked he threw it. It seemed like it took forever to get on it. It was like slow motion."
Cincinnati's season has been slow torture.
"When you get your head kicked in like that, there's not much to say," coach Marvin Lewis said. "This team won't have to go through another season like this. Nor will the fans."
Notes:@ The Ravens swept their season series with Cincinnati for the first time since 2002. ... Clayton also had a diving 45-yard catch. ... The Ravens' defense hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 31 games, the longest current streak in the NFL. ... Fitzpatrick finished 12-of-31 for 124 yards and was sacked three times. ... The Bengals managed only 154 yards in a season-opening loss at Baltimore. They had 155 yards in the rematch.