CINCINNATI (AP) – Maybe T.J. Houshmandzadeh is right after all.

Houshmandzadeh caught a 40-yard touchdown pass on a flea-flicker that caught Baltimore off-guard, sparking Cincinnati to a 13-7 victory Thursday night that kept the AFC North title up for grabs.

A surprisingly stout Bengals defense had a lot to do with it.

Coming off a 30-0 win in Cleveland, one of the NFL’s lowest-ranked defenses held Baltimore scoreless until Steve McNair threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mason with 1:01 to play. No Cincinnati defense had ever gone seven quarters without allowing a point.

With a chance to win the AFC North title outright, Baltimore’s offense came apart, crossing midfield only once in the first three quarters. Keiwan Ratliff clinched it by recovering the onside kick after Baltimore’s only score.

All of it supported Houshmandzadeh’s main point: Right now, Cincinnati (7-5) just might be the better team.

After the Ravens won 26-20 on Nov. 5, the long-haired receiver insisted that everyone knows the Bengals are better. He repeated it again this week, getting a rise out of some of the Ravens. Safety Ed Reed suggested that Houshmandzadeh should just shut up.

The Ravens were in no position to argue after Houshmandzadeh caught 10 passes for a season-high 106 yards, including the trick-play touchdown that made it 13-0 early in the second half and allowed the defense to dig in on a rainy night.

The Bengals don’t usually resort to trick plays – their offense has enough firepower to beat teams straight-up. They did something different against one of the league’s nastiest defenses. On their first drive of the second half, Palmer handed off to Rudi Johnson, who then lateralled the ball back to quarterback. Houshmandzadeh was well beyond the coverage when Palmer let fly with the flea-flicker pass.

Reed was the only player close to Houshmandzadeh when he caught the ball at the 12 and ran untouched into the end zone.

Palmer had a solid showing against a defense that led the league in interceptions, ranked second in sacks and was third in points allowed. The Ravens rarely got to Palmer, who was on the mark on a rainy night – 21-of-32 for 234 yards with only two sacks.

More stunning was the Bengals’ defense. Cincinnati’s defense plummeted to last in the league rankings after giving up 42 second-half points to San Diego and nearly 600 yards to New Orleans. The defense got itself straightened out during the shutout in Cleveland, its first in 17 years.

It was even better against Baltimore. Baltimore crossed midfield only in the first half, and came away empty when Matt Stover missed a 29-yard field goal in the closing seconds.

He made the kick on his first try, but the Bengals strategically called timeout just before the snap.

On the second try, holder Sam Koch struggled with a bad snap and the kick went to the left, only Stover’s second miss in 21 tries this season.

The Ravens knew then that it wasn’t their day.

By contrast, Shayne Graham connected from 23 and 27 yards in the first half, giving the Bengals an early lead and a chance to relax.

Baltimore played the second half without returner B.J. Sams, who broke the fibula in his lower right leg while returning the kickoff. His right foot twisted awkwardly, and he was taken off the field on a cart with his right ankle in a protective brace.

AP-ES-11-30-06 2313EST


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