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Bengals prove better than Ravens this time

Maybe T.J. Houshmandzadeh is right.

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 to Derrick Mason with 1:01 to play. No Cincinnati defense had gone seven quarters without allowing a point.

With a chance to win the 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.

Shayne Graham's two second-quarter field goals gave the Bengals a 6-0 lead. Both scores came after Cincinnati drove inside the 10, once failing to score because of a pass-interference call in the end zone and later when tight end Reggie Kelly came down with a pass out of bounds at the side of the end zone.

Baltimore had a chance for a field goal in the closing seconds of the first half, but Matt Stover missed from 29 yards because of a bad snap.

Two defenses coming off shutouts had their way for most of the opening quarter in a game that could decide the North championship. Cincinnati kept it going, allowing the Ravens to cross midfield only once in the first three quarters.

Ravens kick returner B.J. Sams broke the fibula in his lower right leg during the second quarter and left the field on a cart.

DOLPHINS: Quarterback Daunte Culpepper had arthroscopic knee surgery to remove a piece of cartilage that has hampered his recovery from reconstructive surgery a year ago. The problem was discovered when he was examined Wednesday by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. "Behind his kneecap there was a little piece of articular cartilage that was causing some catching," coach Nick Saban said. "We all feel much better that there's a solution to what wasn't a serious issue, but it was an issue that was holding him back some." Culpepper will stay on the active roster, so there is a chance he'll play again this season.

BROWNS: General manager Phil Savage strongly backed coach Romeo Crennel, saying it was unfair to blame him for all of Cleveland's problems, temporarily snuffing speculation the club (3-8) was on the verge of a coaching change. "Romeo has the total support of (owner) Randy Lerner and myself," Savage said. "He has the respect of the team."

GIANTS: Defensive end Michael Strahan did not participate in practice, a day after taking part in his first individual drills since spraining his right foot against Houston four weeks ago. He is listed as doubtful for Sunday against the Cowboys.

STORM: Players Lawrence Samuels and Thaddeus Bullard will appear at the annual "Badge Bowl" between Tampa firefighters and Tampa police from 5-7 p.m. Saturday at Wharton High School. For more information, call Wharton at (813) 631-4710.

Times staff writer David Murphy contributed to this report.

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