The 6-3 Bengals are winging to the 6-3 Ravens on Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) and the Bengals.com Media Forum is predicting a Hitchcockian outcome for the upstart visitors. Like his classic "The Birds," it will be a thriller but won't end well when the clubs decide which team shares first place with the Steelers next week.
But the pundits note the Bengals three losses by 14 points, head coach Marvin Lewis's 10-6 record against his old club (not to mention 4-4 in the graveyard), and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's mastery of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, and give the Ravens a close call. The doubtful status of the Bengals rookie playmaker, wide receiver A.J. Green (knee) pushes them to Baltimore.
The grim state of mind for the Ravens with their 23-5 record at home under head coach John Harbaugh while beating teams by an average of 15.4 also has the Forum thinking this is going to be a day for the Birds.
"They definitely have an edge this week," says Mike Preston, The Baltimore Sun's edgy sports columnist. "They play good against the good teams and bad against the bad teams. They've been inconsistent. But this week, Harbaugh and the players have that edge. You can see it."
Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who once gulped when Bengals.com asked if there were free refills of the clam chowder the night before a Bengals game in Baltimore, thinks the best shot the Bengals have is if they take advantage of the uncharacteristically sloppy Ravens special teams. Long-range kicker Billy Cundiff is just 1-of-6 from 50 yards and beyond, and Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons has to be breathing easier that Matt Stover, the kicker on the all-BengalsKiller team, is only there to get inducted into the ring of honor.
Clark Judge of CBSSports.com, who has covered the loop for three decades from both coasts, is a big fan of what Lewis has done in Cincinnati and believes rookie quarterback Andy Dalton just may be the find of the draft.
"Love the quarterback," Judge says, but he doesn't love him without Green.
Still, there are a bunch of marquee matchups. Dalton vs. Ed Reed, the NFL's active interception leader. The excellent Bengals cover linebackers vs. slithery running back Ray Rice. Bengals center Kyle Cook, who has had a superb month, going against Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata.
But ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley is going to be watching left tackle Andrew Whitworth work against rush outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Suggs, Baltimore's all-time sacks leader and the team's current leader with six, doesn't have a sack against Whitworth. Hensley, who covered the Ravens for 11 years at the Baltimore Sun before moving to ESPN.com's AFC North blog, thinks this game belongs to the quarterbacks and he likes what Baltimore's Joe Flacco is spinning at the moment.
Let's go around the table.
I think the Bengals' best chance to win the game is on special teams. Last week in Seattle, Cundiff missed two field goals and he was short on a 50-yarder. Cundiff short on a 50-yarder? Plus, David Reed fumbled two kickoffs, so they basically gave them 12 points with the missed field goals and short fields.
Flacco has played great, but the Bengals always seem to play him pretty well. But now he's going to be facing them without Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph at cornerback and the vital question is how much do they get from Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings? Is it 90 percent of that, 85 percent? If they get good pressure, it ought to help and they've been able to get some this season.
THE EDGE: Ravens, 23-20. Not having Green is a big factor. I think the Bengals have to find ways to win on special teams and not make any mistakes. The Ravens are tough at home.
The Ravens have been very inconsistent this year when it comes to getting up for games. They've played the good teams good and the bad teams bad and look what's happened. They sweep Pittsburgh and lose to Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle. That was a bad loss last week in Seattle. They had a chance to take control of the division and let it slip away.
But they've got the edge this week. Everybody has as an edge this week. John Harbaugh has got one. They know what it means. First place and they're at home, so I don't think they're going to come out flat.
I think you'll see a ton of Ray Rice on Sunday. They know they can't win many games giving him five touches a game. Every player but Flacco came out and said they've got to get Rice the ball. The thing is, Marvin has done a good job shutting down Rice. (The Bengals aren't on Rice's list of top 10 yardage days but the Steelers are on it twice.) And the Ravens struggle against 4-3 defenses. They don't see them very often and when they get behind, they panic and start throwing the ball.
THE EDGE: Ravens, 20-17: They're with it this week and they're going to be committed to making sure Rice gets the ball.
Both teams are going to stop the run. They won't be able to run it on each other and I think it's going to come down to the quarterbacks. With Green in the lineup, the Bengals have a much better chance downfield. Five of Dalton's interceptions have come in the fourth quarter, so I think that gives an edge to Flacco. If there's a knock on Dalton that would be it, and Ed Reed has had some big games against the Bengals.
The Ravens don't seem to play with a lot of confidence against 4-3 defenses and the Bengals have a good pass rush. They've done a decent job protecting Flacco (13th in the NFL allowing sacks per pass) with Bryant McKinnie at left tackle and Michael Oher now on the right side, but Oher is still a better run blocker than pass protector.
The matchup I'm looking forward to is Whitworth against Suggs. They're two of the top players in the league and they mean so much to what happens in this game.
THE EDGE: Ravens, 24-21. Neither defense gives up a lot of points. It's going to come down to a tight game in the fourth quarter and it's going to come down to which quarterback makes a play.
I think the Bengals have done a great job setting themselves up for the future with the drafting of Dalton and Green. They've got a Pro Bowl playmaker to go with a top quarterback and they're in better position than a lot of teams that have been in that spot, like, say, St. Louis. I have to be honest with you. At the beginning of the year, I thought they were going to be one of the worst teams in the league. But they play great defense, and the new offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, has done a great job handling Dalton.
But this is a tough game for them to win. The Ravens are coming off a bad loss on the road and they play so well at home under Harbaugh. They play well against the better teams and the Bengals are a better team. I really like Dalton, but this is a tough game for a rookie quarterback on the road. Look at the points the Ravens give up at home (13.3 under Harbaugh, 14.9 since 2003) and they're going to be coming at the Bengals with everything.
THE EDGE: Ravens, 24-16. If Green doesn't play, that takes away the Bengals' best threat against one of the league's top defenses. And the Ravens are a different team at home.
THE BOTTOM LINE: This is a winnable game down there in one of the toughest places to win in the NFL. But without Green, the Bengals have to play a perfect game. No turnovers. No returns, kicks or picks. They are 6-3 because of their play up front, so the offensive line has to keep protecting and their defensive line has to keep pressuring.
The Bengals probably won't have Green, but they didn't have him or tight end Jermaine Gresham in last year's finale and wide receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell had big games against the Ravens, just the kind of games they need Sunday. Gresham is in the lineup and Caldwell is going against the same guy he ran by twice last year on the outside in cornerback Lardarius Webb, and Simpson is operating against the same scheme he racked up 12 catches for 123 yards.
With the two top NFL defenses against the run teeing it up (the Ravens are first allowing 3.3 yards per rush, the Bengals second at 3.4), you know what kind of game it's going to be. Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham will no doubt utter the word "slobernocker" early. Low-scoring and tight.
Cincinnati's best shot to beat Baltimore is how the Bengals have played the Ravens the last two years: possess the ball. The Bengals are 3-1 holding the ball at least 34 minutes. With their defense reeling without Hall, the Bengals offense has to keep the defense off the field against Flacco and Rice.
That's a tough nut against the historically-stingy Ravens that give nothing on the ground. They're ranked third against the run this season and boast the NFL's top nose tackle in Ngata. Bengals center Kyle Cook has arguably been Cincinnati's best offensive lineman the past month and that matchup should be fun to watch. The Bengals have a running back in Cedric Benson that has two of those rare 100-yard days against the Ravens. Baltimore has allowed only eight in the last 76 games, but did give up one last week in Seattle to Marshawn Lynch (109) while Benson and Bernard Scott looked frisky against the Steelers in Cincinnati's best running effort in weeks.
But the Bengals also have to keep Dalton clean in the pass game and they have so far. The Bengals are fifth in allowing sacks per pass, but the Ravens are third generating sacks per pass. It is right tackle Andre Smith's first true shot against these guys and while Suggs is mainly on Whitworth, Smith figures to get his chances.
It is a must that the Bengals heat up Flacco in the pass rush. With Jennings and Adam Jones getting their feet wet in place of Hall, Flacco is going to take his shots with or without Bengalskiller Lee Evans.
The Bengals can't give up a big play. It almost seems like they're daring the odds. The Ravens are 11-2 in games Reed scores a TD. The only losses have been to the Bengals.