Ravens must wait to clinch AFC North

Updated: December 1, 2006, 8:04 PM ET
Associated Press

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens' midweek trip to Cincinnati didn't go the way they had planned.

With a chance to clinch the AFC North title, their offense sputtered and their vaunted defense gave up a big play on a flea-flicker in a 13-7 loss to the Bengals on Thursday. They also have to find a replacement now for top kick returner B.J. Sams, who broke his right fibula in the setback.

"We missed an opportunity," linebacker Bart Scott said. "Whenever you've got an opportunity to clinch something, you don't want to have to wait to take care of your business. I'd play them every game of the week. This train ain't stopping for nobody. Our destiny is still in our hands."

Baltimore (9-3) was trying to become the first team to clinch a playoff berth this season but the NFL's second-ranked defense had few answers for Cincinnati wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Plus, an offense that had averaged 28.3 points during a five-game winning streak skidded to a halt with one late touchdown.

Besides Sams' injury, the special teams endured a low snap by long snapper Matt Katual that led to Matt Stover's botched 29-yard field goal attempt, a rare miss from within 40 yards.

"We will have more opportunities," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It's always disappointing when you miss an opportunity to capture a division. Fortunately, we're still in a position where we can still control that going forward. We don't have to rely on anybody else."

The Ravens dropped a half-game behind the San Diego Chargers for the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC. With four games remaining in the regular season, it will take the Ravens at least two weeks to clinch the division title and earn an automatic playoff berth.

Baltimore almost had to absorb its first shutout ever against the Bengals (7-5) but Steve McNair threw a touchdown pass to Derrick Mason with 1:01 left. It would've been the Ravens' first shutout since a 25-0 loss to Tampa Bay in 2002.

"We didn't get things started," McNair said. "We couldn't get into the things we wanted to do. We made too many penalties. We got backed up with false starts. You can't win ballgames like that."

Replacing Sams will be an important task before Baltimore travels to face Kansas City on Dec. 10. Backup running back Musa Smith replaced him on kickoffs and nickelback Corey Ivy filled in on punts, muffing one late in the second half. Rookie running back Cory Ross is another potential replacement candidate.

"Huge, huge. You're talking about one of the great return guys in the game right now," Billick said about Sams' loss. "We'll adapt."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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