CINCINNATI — The sticks were moving, and so was Morgan Moses. The Ravens had just punched one last hole in the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense Sunday afternoon, running back Gus Edwards’ third-and-short conversion ushering 60,000-plus fans to the exits inside Paycor Stadium. Finally, there was cause for celebration.

Moses, the Ravens’ excitable right tackle, skipped merrily upfield, joined almost in lockstep by left tackle Patrick Mekari. They slowed and stopped to take it all in. Some 25 or 30 yards in the distance was the north end zone. Eight months ago, they’d watched, almost helplessly, as Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard had run a fumble back the length of the field, his journey ending in jubilation there. Their season ended that night.

All offseason, the Ravens had reckoned with the what-could’ve-beens of a playoff game they weren’t expected to win but maybe should’ve. All preseason, they’d heard how the Bengals were the consensus favorites in the division. On Sunday, the Ravens left no doubt about where they stood.

“To put the AFC [North] champs, at home, down 0-2 in our division, that means something,” Moses said after the Ravens’ 27-24 win. “Obviously, we’ve got to play them again, and obviously, we’ve got to take care of business moving on forward, but … we pride ourselves on this being the best division in football, so when you go out and play at a great level and you get a win and you walk away, it means a lot more, obviously.”

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If the Ravens’ win did not stamp them as way-too-early division favorites, it at least made a compelling case for their candidacy.

CINCINNATI, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 17: Tyler Boyd #83 of the Cincinnati Bengals catches a pass against the Baltimore Ravens at Paycor Stadium on September 17, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The Ravens' Ar'Darius Washington (29) and Geno Stone hit the Bengals' Tyler Boyd after a catch. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

“All phases, I believe, we fought today how we’re supposed to in a tough game [against] the former division champs — a great team, by the way, all phases as well. We just did what we’re supposed to do.”

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson

The Ravens did not have their top two offensive linemen, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Tyler Linderbaum. They still kept quarterback Lamar Jackson upright most of the day, limiting the Bengals to one hit and no sacks.

The Ravens lost running back J.K. Dobbins to a torn Achilles tendon in Week 1 and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a minor ankle injury in the first half. They still finished with 415 yards of offense (5.9 per play) and three touchdowns against a deep, talented Cincinnati defense.

The Ravens did not have starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey (foot) or starting safety Marcus Williams (pectoral), nor was outside linebacker Odafe Oweh (lower body) available in the second half. They still held quarterback Joe Burrow and the Bengals, one of the NFL’s best offenses, to 282 yards overall.

On paper, the Ravens did not look like the presumptive favorite of any division, much less the AFC North. In practice, they were as good as they needed to be Sunday, maybe better.

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“That’s an awesome team win,” coach John Harbaugh said after the Ravens ended a three-game losing streak in Cincinnati and improved to 2-0 for the first time since 2020. “I’m just proud of every single guy on the team — resiliency, tenacity, long drives, plays made when they had to be made, stops when they had to be made. Just an outstanding effort and a great way to come in here to open up the AFC North trek that we’re about to go on.”

The Ravens do not face the Bengals again until a “Thursday Night Football” game in Week 11. A lot can happen in those two months. But if the AFC North’s top two teams last year are the AFC North’s top two teams this year — if Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson can’t figure things out in Cleveland, if injuries and a stale offensive scheme take their toll on the Pittsburgh Steelers — Sunday’s win could set the Ravens up for an enviable midseason cushion.

In Week 3, the Ravens will face an Indianapolis Colts team that could be without starting quarterback Anthony Richardson (concussion). After that come road games against the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers and a matchup in London with the Tennessee Titans. The Ravens get the talented but flawed Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks in Baltimore and the lowly Cardinals in Arizona. Throw in a Week 10 home game against Cleveland, and the Ravens currently project as solid favorites, at best, or slight underdogs, at worst, in every test until Cincinnati arrives at M&T Bank Stadium in mid-November.

“We’ll take our wins,” said tight end Mark Andrews, who had five catches for 45 yards and a touchdown in his return from a minor quadriceps injury. “They’re hard to come by in the NFL, but we know that, any given Sunday, anything can happen. So if we keep our head down, we keep working, keep trying to get better, keep working on details, we’re going to be a good team. So I just encourage my guys to keep a level head, and let’s get this thing rolling.”

At the vanguard Sunday was Jackson, whose season-ending PCL injury late last season had kept him from extending his mastery over the Bengals. For a while, anyway.

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After an uneven season opener, Jackson finished 24-for-33 for 237 yards and two touchdowns, along with 12 carries for 54 yards, outdueling Burrow (27-for-41 for 222 yards, two touchdowns and an interception) as he improved to 7-1 against Cincinnati as a starter. He opened the game with a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. He put away the game with two first downs, the first a 12-yard scramble on a third-and-3 and the second the handoff to Edwards, extinguishing Cincinnati’s faint comeback hopes after the Bengals had narrowed the deficit to 27-24 with 3:28 remaining.

In between, Jackson looked more and more like the quarterback no one in the division wants to see: emboldened, empowered, in full command of his dual-threat powers. He threw an inch-perfect 52-yard bomb to rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers to set up Andrews’ touchdown in the third quarter. He found Andrews over the middle for 20 yards on a second-and-23 that kept the Ravens’ final touchdown drive on track. And he trusted wide receiver Nelson Agholor (team-high five catches for 63 yards) to beat top Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie on a slot fade for a 17-yard touchdown that extended the Ravens’ lead to double digits early in the fourth quarter.

“Like I’ve been saying since [training] camp, the sky is the limit for this team,” Jackson said. “All phases, I believe, we fought today how we’re supposed to in a tough game [against] the former division champs — a great team, by the way, all phases as well. We just did what we’re supposed to do.”

“These wins matter at the end of it all. Just because we’re in Week 2 doesn’t mean that it’s not going to have any implications come Week 17, 16.”

Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton

CINCINNATI, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 17: Justice Hill #43 of the Baltimore Ravens is tackled by Zach Carter #95 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the fourth quarter at Paycor Stadium on September 17, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Ravens running back Justice Hill is tackled by Zach Carter of the Bengals. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The hope in Baltimore is that more help is on the way, too. That Humphrey, Stanley and Linderbaum will be back soon. That the Ravens on short-term injured reserve and the non-football-injury list — outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, running back Keaton Mitchell, cornerback Damarion “Pepe” Williams — can contribute, too. That the defense won’t need to rely on safety Geno Stone picking off a red-zone pass from Burrow, or defensive back Brandon Stephens press-covering star wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (five catches for 31 yards) all afternoon.

“We’re a team that’s going to fight, no matter who is out there,” Stone said, and they will need to. Injuries happen. Bad bounces happen. The Bengals turning back into the Bengals will probably happen. Cincinnati started last year 0-2, too, and lost its first matchup with the Ravens, only to end the year with eight straight wins and a second straight AFC North crown.

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As Jackson said afterward, Sunday was not a championship game. It was just one more win in a 17-game season. But it mattered. It had to, not just because of whom the Ravens beat, but also because of whom the Ravens didn’t have. Because of where they were eight months ago and where they’re going now.

“These wins matter at the end of it all,” safety Kyle Hamilton said. “Just because we’re in Week 2 doesn’t mean that it’s not going to have any implications come Week 17, 16. And, at the same time, we won all of our division games in the first go-around last year and lost all of the second games. We’ve still got a long season to go.”

Injury report

Harbaugh said he doesn’t expect the injuries that Beckham and Oweh suffered to be “serious.” Beckham was not seen after the game, while Oweh limped out of the locker room in a walking boot.

“We’ll learn more tomorrow, but I don’t believe either one of those will be serious, as it looks right now,” Harbaugh said.

Jackson said he had a “little stinger in my arm, my hand,” after a late-game play but that he felt fine.

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Prized protection

After an uncomfortable Week 1, Jackson was pressured on just three of 33 drop-backs, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. He completed all three of those attempts for 12 yards. Bengals star defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who typically lines up over the left tackle, didn’t record a single pressure.

“That’s a great job by our O-line coach [Joe D’Alessandris] getting us prepared and us being brothers and the things we do on and off the field,” Moses said.

A lid on Burrow

Burrow went 23-for-27 on throws of 9 air yards or fewer, but he struggled to connect downfield. On throws of 10 yards or longer, he was 4-for-12, including his third-quarter interception.

“Just eliminate the big plays,” Stone said. “We wanted to get hands on them early and make sure we had great coverage in the back end. They are a team that’s good after the catch, so as long as you eliminate run-and-catches and stuff like that, all the explosive plays — those 50-50 balls are going to happen. It’s the NFL. As long as you eliminate all the RAC [run-after-the-catch] plays, it’s good.”

This article has been updated with the correct length of the Ravens’ first scoring drive.

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

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