The 6-3 Bengals know enough to be wary about this one Sunday in Baltimore (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Super Bowl champion Ravens mired at 3-5.
It was this week a year ago when the 3-5 Bengals began their playoff run by stunning the Super Bowl champions at Paul Brown Stadium and they're not looking for history to repeat itself.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable agrees and gives Cincinnati the edge in the first of its two-game AFC North season that culminates next week against Cleveland at PBS.
Pete Prisco, the CBS Sports NFL guru who picked the Bengals to win it all in preseason, hasn't ducked out on them. On Sunday he's picking the Bengals defense to swarm the one-dimensional Ravens before winning it late.
Coley Harvey, who covers the Bengals for ESPN.com, believes the offense's sloppy performance in Miami that negated a 465-yard effort won't be repeated and is going to inspire a victory.
Two Baltimore scribes, Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun and Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com, have covered the Ravens since the glory days of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis steering the 2000 Ravens defense into the NFL record book and parlaying it into a Super Bowl title. They're split on this one.
Wilson projects a 10-point Cincinnati victory because of the variety of weapons the Bengals send at a banged-up secondary that also misses the playmaking of Ed Reed. Hensley predicts the old standby AFC North grinder decided by Baltimore's remarkable success at home.
Let's go around The Table:
I'd be on more on the bandwagon if they continue to open up the offense. I think this team has so many weapons and so many different looks they can present to teams and sometimes I think they can get too locked up in the run. You have Marvin Jones, you have A.J. Green, you have Tyler Eifert, you have Giovani Bernard, you have Jermaine Gresham, you have a quarterback capable of making the plays. Why? That's one of the questions I have. The next seven games they need to be more up-tempo and wide open and let them play. And then you run and then you run and then you run.
In the Bengals cornerback situation they were pretty healthy going into the season, so I think they're capable of covering. Leon Hall is a good player and it's a big loss, but they can get by on that one. Geno Atkins is a little different story. For me, whether it's Thompson or Still or whoever steps up and does something, he's never going to be Geno. That one is telling. But, if you're going to lose a guy in the middle, you better have guys on the edge and they do. I think they can compensate for it a little bit and it's about time for Still and Thompson. You drafted those guys in the second and third rounds. Get them to step up; it's their time.
The Ravens can't run. They're last in the league in yards per attempt. They struggle up the middle. The left tackle Eugene Monroe played well last week but they've had problems over there. The right tackle has struggled and the scheme isn't good. The tight ends can't block in it and running back Ray Rice isn't the same Ray Rice and they see a lot of eight-man fronts. Bad combination.
They haven't given up on the run. But when they try to run, they can't run. The tight ends can't get the edge. New run game coordinator Juan Castillo came in there and brought that zone scheme and they don't look comfortable.
The Ravens have some good players on defense. Having cornerback Lardarius Webb back helps, a healthy Terrell Suggs helps. You look at some of those guys up front and they're pretty good players.
I think middle linebacker Daryl Smith is having a good year for them. Inside backer Josh Bynes has played pretty well for them actually. It's not the defense. The offense stinks.
The Ravens offense is going to have it tough Sunday because they are so one-dimensional. It's almost like you don't have to worry about their run game anymore. Even without Geno in the middle, left guard A.Q. Shipley and center Gino Gradkowski are struggling. I think the Bengals can handle the run game and that puts all the pressure on Flacco with few weapons. The tight ends are Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson. They can't block me, they're not blocking anybody.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-20. Late field goal to win it. I know I'm bucking the trend there picking them on the road. I think they'll go in there, stop that run with a lot of pressure, get a couple of turnovers. This is Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson time. They've got to get up the field to compensate for the loss of Atkins. I think they will. They get a couple of turnovers and I think you'll see points coming through the air this week. They've got to go back and look at the Miami tape. Everybody rips on Andy Dalton. He got them back at 20-17. Yes, I still think they can win the Super Bowl.
I think it's going to come down to stopping that run knowing the Ravens haven't been good with it this season. They're on pace to have one of the worst rushing averages in NFL history. But they still sound committed to it and the Bengals have to take it away. I think the defensive line, even without Geno Atkins, still has the capability of getting into the backfield and getting to Joe Flacco. As long as they do that, defensively they'll be fine.
It's going to be on the offense the rest of the way to kind of carry this team. If we see some semblance of that in this game, that will be a good sign for the rest of the year for the offense.
They can compensate for Geno. There is going to be a lot put on Brandon Thompson and from looking at him this week it seems like he realizes he understands some of the pressure that's on him to step up for a two-time Pro Bowler. In addition to that, I think they'll be mixing along that line. I don't know if Kheeston Randall is going to play a whole lot in this game, but he'll give them an extra body in there. We were talking to Margus Hunt at one point this week and I think he'll shift some back inside like he did against Miami. They keep wanting to shoot that idea down of playing James Harrison at end, but that's a possibility as a way to mix up the bodies and get more people involved up front.
I think they match up with the Ravens offensive line. Mainly because the Ravens have had so many issues there. They've had a few injuries. Obviously losing tight end Dennis Pitta has been an issue for them on the edge. They haven't got much protection for Flacco. Even though Thompson hasn't played much this year, he's played enough that I think he'll be fine getting that rush going. It will be interesting to see what that pass rush looks like once they get tackle Devon Still back, but I think Thompson will get into the backfield.
The Ravens have some injuries on defense, too. Cornerback Jimmy Smith is banged up. Even though this is a different defense than we've seen for Baltimore, they're pretty solid against the pass. I know they got burned a couple of times against the Browns last weekend. It depends how much single coverage they do with A.J. Green and how much single coverage they do with the rest of the guys for that matter. What is going to help Cincinnati, and I know the players have been saying this all year and I've started to finally see it the last few weeks, they give you those matchup problems. If you're doubling A.J., somebody is going to be left open. If you're doubling someone else, A.J. is going to be left open. This could be one of those games—as long as they catch the ball—where that can show in the passing game.
Obviously the Bengals running game has had its ups and downs this year. You just imagine Gio Bernard should be able to break off a couple of big plays. If he doesn't play that would hurt them for sure. I have a feeling he will end up playing. Another thing to watch is if they don't have Gresham. Are they going to be able to set an extra edge on some of the rushes to get the passing game going because that's going to be one of the weapons they'd be down? But I think they'll be fine with Bernard getting a couple of big carries.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 31-23. I don't know why I picked that many points for the Bengals, but I will say the offense is feeling a little salty from last week and I think it feels it has something to prove. Not just with Geno's injury, but also what happened in Miami. So I think they'll come out and score a lot of points. I don't know if 31 will happen, but they'll score a lot of points. It could come down to a late field goal or some kind of a late play in regulation or overtime.
Before this stretch of four road games out of five weeks, that was the big landmark. Now these next two games against Baltimore and Cleveland are the next landmark. They get through these two games at 2-0, they've got themselves set up for maybe a playoff bye.
When I looked at it on paper I had originally picked this as a loss for the Ravens. They've lost three straight games. They haven't started fast and they're having trouble getting teams off the field late in games defensively, so it's been a collective failure for the Ravens. But looking at the injury report, the Ravens may be getting the Bengals at the right time. With the losses the Bengals have had, from Leon Hall to Geno Atkins to middle linebacker Rey Maualuga being out, left tackle Andrew Whitworth being banged up, I think that kind of favors the Ravens.
Overall, when you factor it all in, I think the homefield advantage is the deciding factor. Over the years the Ravens have just played better at home. All things being equal, I think the Bengals would have probably won this game. But because they're banged up I think the Ravens have the edge.
The Ravens have tried to run the ball, but that has become a big, big weakness, so much that they now have started spreading it out with more three wide receivers. That could work to the Ravens' advantage just because it gets the Bengals into more nickel and dime defenses and the Ravens can maybe find more matchups that favor them. Going into the game I think the Ravens have it in their head they're going to win the game throwing the ball. I think that's what they'll do is try to spread the Bengals out as much as possible and try to find which matchups favor them the most.
Rice hasn't had that much explosion. He hasn't been able to get much after contact. Even in the open field, he'll go down with just one hit. His average per catch is just five yards. I think they'll try to get him involved in matchups, but I don't know if he's going to be a big factor. With a lot of teams kind of focusing on wide receiver Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia, has really stepped up. He leads the Ravens with five touchdown catches and you also have to remember that wide receiver Jacoby Jones is finally getting back in the flow and he can really stretch the field. It wouldn't surprise me if the Ravens try to throw at least a couple of deep passes to try and get Jacoby back on track.
When they do run, they're just trying to keep teams honest, but I don't think they're fully committed to it anymore just because with what they have on the offensive line. Monroe, their new left tackle, is more of a pass-blocking guy than a drive run blocker. Their left guard is done for the season so you have Shipley there now who is not a big run blocker. With the five guys they have up front, I think it favors them to be more of a passing team.
On defense they're pretty much going with a four-man rush. They have a streak of 16 straight games with at least two sacks, so they can get after the passer. It's Elvis Dumervil and Suggs on the outside with Chris Canty pressuring up the middle. Art Jones is having a surprisingly strong year, especially in the pass rush. Where the Ravens have fallen short is the pass rush has led to sacks, but it hasn't led to turnovers. They only have four interceptions this year. What they're trying to do is stay committed to the four man pass rush, but the big stress is hopefully the pressure leads to turnovers and that's been the big theme this week.
The Ravens are banged up at corner. Jimmy Smith (groin) is definitely questionable. Chykie Brown, their third corner, Corey Graham (thigh), they're all banged up a little bit. Lardarius Webb isn't on the injury report, but he's not Lardarius Webb since coming back from that ACL injury. Of their top four corners, none of them are at full strength right now. That puts even more pressure on the Ravens to get after Dalton. If he has time ... I think the Ravens cornerbacks even healthy would have trouble shutting down some of the Bengals receives. When they're not even at full strength, that's one of the Ravens' biggest concerns defensively. I think their three are going to be Webb, Brown and Graham. If Jimmy Smith goes he won't play all the snaps. They'll be cautious with him.
THE EDGE: Ravens, 20-16. Typically the Ravens defense plays best when they're at home. They've struggled offensively, but with the injuries the Bengals have on defense, that allows the Ravens to get at least a few more points than they have the past few weeks.
The secondary matchups are what hurts the Ravens. Wide receivers Davone Bess and Greg Little hurt them last week in Cleveland. They concentrated on tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receiver Josh Gordon, but the other DBs failed. They're going to miss a healthy Jimmy Smith. He's a game-time decision probably. They've got some issues. If the Bengals find cornerback Corey Graham, that could be a problem.
The Ravens get pressure with a four-man front. Haloti Ngata isn't much of a gap shooter now that he plays nose tackle. Arthur Jones has given them good pressure from the inside. They don't have a shutdown corner even though they've got the good pass rush, and they've had breakdowns in games (Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Green Bay) where they didn't stop the run. They haven't got key stops and the stats don't really show that. Browns quarterback Jason Campbell ran away from them a few times.
They've lost a lot of institutional knowledge without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They've made some mental mistakes they haven't made in the past. Physically it's a better defense, but they've got two strong safeties playing out there and neither guy is real adept at coverage. They have no picks and the rookie, Matt Elam, has just one pass defensed. Jimmy Smith was coming on, but now he's got an injury.
The running game is terrible. They can get barely a yard. Ray Rice says he's healthy, but he doesn't seem to be from his hip injury early in the season. Bernard Pierce doesn't break many tackles and he's got nagging injuries. And they really miss center Matt Birk. It's also hurt the passing game with some blitzes not getting picked up, and the backs had trouble picking up some blitzes in Cleveland.
I'm interested to see the matchup with Torrey Smith on Bengals cornerback Adam Jones. Torrey is a good, fast athlete. Jones is a more physical, cover guy.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-17. The Bengals have too many weapons offensively and they have a good enough defense to contain the Ravens passing game. That's how people have been playing them. The running game doesn't represent a viable threat at this point. I would expect the Bengals coaches to focus on Joe Flacco and his receivers. That's what Cleveland did and I think the Bengals can do that without Geno Atkins and Rey Maualuga.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Some trends are going to be bucked either way Sunday.
The Bengals haven't lost two straight in 53 weeks. Quarterback Andy Dalton hasn't won in Baltimore. Lewis has never lost four straight in Baltimore. The Ravens are 8-1 at home in November under coach John Harbaugh and their three-game losing streak never happens with a 66-35 mark under Harbaugh.
No secrets here. If the Bengals win the next two, they head into their bye thinking about another bye in the playoffs. But the offense is going to have to do it for them, never mind how bad the Ravens running game is. Make no mistake that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is going to take his deep shots early and often to take advantage of wide receiver Torrey Smith's nearly 20 yards per catch average and the Bengals are going to have to keep up.
But this is the classic game where the Bengals can't let Dalton chuck it 53 times like happened in Miami. Not against that defense in that ravenous environment. The Ravens have a terrific four-man front and while all eyes are on the Andrew Whitworth-Terrell Suggs and Andre Smith-Elvis Dumervil matchups on the edge, Arthur Jones is a big challenge inside where the Ravens have racked up the third-best sacks per pass ratio in the league.
But if Dalton gets time, the Bengals should make hay in the passing game. Last week in Cleveland the Browns third and fourth options, Davone Bess and Greg Little, hurt the Ravens, and the Baltimore corners continue to be nicked.
And there's no Ed Reed and his Hall of Fame 61 interceptions at safety. Ravens safeties James Ihedigbo and Matt Elam have no interceptions and Pro Football Focus rates them 32nd and 57th, respectively, in the NFL when it comes to passes defensed.
It took a half for the Bengals to get their run defense straightened out against Miami, but the Ravens have been so poor running the ball it looks like defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is going to be able to scheme enough pressures to bug Flacco. Go back to 2010 when the Bengals kept Rice relatively in check on 16 carries and Flacco threw four picks.
But if Baltimore runs the ball, that's got to be a bad sign for how the defense is going to respond to the Geno Atkins injury.
Yet this game is all about bounceback and the Green-Dalton Bengals have shown plenty of that. Dalton threw for 280 yards in the win over Pittsburgh while rolling up 407 yards after the loss in Chicago and he rebounded from his poor game in Cleveland to hit 20 of 27 passes against New England.
And Zimmer's defense pitched two beauties after the two losses. The Steelers rushed for just 44 yards and the Bengals held the Patriots without a touchdown for the first time in four years.
With the Ravens unable to run while struggling covering the pass, the Bengals hope it translates into another bounceback.