That polar shift in the AFC North the pundits predicted barely after the Ravens won the Super Bowl back in February tilts towards Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when the division champion Bengals (10-5) flex their home dominance against an 8-7 Baltimore team that all but has to win to have any shot at defending its title in the postseason.
In a unanimous resolution, the Bengals.com Media Roundtable reinforces the consensus that Cincinnati rules the North and a win would put the Bengals up by three games when the regular-season finishes Sunday with the No. 2 seed dangling when the Patriots and Bills kick off in Foxboro at 4:25.
Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, who has been involved in all but two of the club's playoff berths as a player and broadcaster, thinks the Bengals have as much balance in the NFL with a top 10 offense and defense and thinks that holds up against the Ravens.
Pete Prisco, the CBS Sports NFL guru who put the Bengals in the Super Bowl long before the Green-Dalton era convened for a third training camp, sticks by it in Week 17. Even though there seems to be a 50-50 chance the Bengals won't have their top two tight ends Sunday, Prisco cites that balance and depth on offense to carry the day with a defense giving up an average of 17 points per game at PBS.
The same vibes are emanating from Baltimore, where Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun opts for the Bengals with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in a knee brace and his defense coming off a wobbly tackling game in New England.
Matt Zenitz, who moved from the University of Maryland football beat to succeed Wilson covering the Bengals for The Carroll County Times this season, also picks the Bengals after looking at the last four scores at PBS and last week's 42-14 win over a Vikings team the Ravens beat by a field goal in Baltimore three weeks ago.
Let's go around The Table:
It's going to come down to the same thing that the other Bengals-Ravens matchups always come down to: turnovers and field position.
The Bengals are plus-eight at home. That's why they're 7-0. Minus-six on the road is a big reason they're 3-5. Their average drive start was 10 yards worse than the Ravens in Baltimore. Times 15 possessions, that's 150 yards. Can't do that. The Ravens punt return game is No. 1 in the NFL and is obviously a concern. Jacoby Jones returning kicks and punts. Tandon Doss can return punts; he did it earlier in the year. They've got many weapons in the return game.
The Bengals have a concern without punter Kevin Huber. They've got a trust and confidence built in his directional kicking. Jones is talented, but I'm telling you, he can't be any better than Minnesota's Cordarrelle Patterson last week. A freak. Freak. I've never seen anybody as fearless as him. He hasn't been stoned yet. I'd like to see how he responds when he gets hit in the mouth.
I think the Bengals are as balanced as any team in the NFL. They can stop the run, stop the pass. They can run it when they have to and throw it when they have to. They've shown that they can. This is one of those games you can't be one-dimensional. You have to try and establish some modicum of a running game. You can't be one-dimensional against the Ravens. You can't fall behind by two scores. You just can't do it. Defenses like this, if you fall into a mode where you're down two scores in the second half, you're in trouble. You have to try and make chunks to get back into it, but you can't throw your game plan out the window, either. If it's a score or 10 points, I think you still have to stay balanced.
The Ravens are not going to load the box like Minnesota did and say, 'Andy Dalton beat us.' Because I think the Ravens respect Andy Dalton that he can. They'll try to stop the Bengals with seven in the box, just like the Bengals are going to try and do. Every defensive coordinator's goal is to stop the run with seven and pass rush with four. That's paradise. The team that can do that, do both, has a leg up.
Red zone is going to be huge. The Bengals are second in the NFL in touchdown percentage and the Ravens are (seventh) stopping touchdowns. Another key is the Patriots got to Flacco early last week and he got happy feet. With that knee and the knee brace, he's not RGIII running round back there, but he's still got ability to slide-step and step up in the pocket, that kind of movement. But he looked like a sitting duck against the Patriots. It looked like he was real stationary. If the Bengals can get to him early, the Ravens haven't been able to run it all year. If the Bengals shut down that running game and get to Flacco early and give him some happy feet, it could be a good thing.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 20-13. They win by a score. I don't think it will be a high-scoring game. The Ravens are 6-2 when they hold teams to less than 21 points. The Bengals were in that category. They scored 17 with a Hail Mary. I think it will be that type of game.
If the Bengals play the way they've played at home the last four games it should be no game. I think the Bengals are the only team in the AFC that can both score and stop you from scoring.
I think they play differently at home than on the road on offense. They get too conservative on the road. It's good to run the football, but get a lead and then run it. I think at times they ask Andy to do too much on third down in some of those road games because they don't run the ball well enough. Get a lead, then run it. Don't try and run it to get the lead. They do a better job of that at home.
I went back last week and watched the first game between the two because I thought it might mean the division title and I didn't think the Bengals receivers did a good job winning in that game. Dalton has opportunities in the middle of the field and they don't go there enough, but at home they tend to go there than on the road. It's almost like on the road they're afraid to let him go there. In the second half of that game he hit Mohamed Sanu on a crosser and he hit A.J. Green on one. The middle of the field is open against that team. He should have chances.
In that first game I didn't get why they didn't punt on that first drive and went for it on fourth-and-one at midfield. But the Ravens did nothing that day. Except for one little pass to Torrey Smith, they did nothing. I tell you a guy who's playing well for the Bengals on defense at safety. Reggie Nelson makes a lot of big plays. Even in the run game when they bring him up near the line. He's a good blitzer. After watching that whole game against Baltimore, they got whipped up front a couple of times but I think for the most part they did a decent job and could have won that game. It was a weird game from a playcalling standpoint. It was almost like they were playing not to lose. Whitworth struggled that day at tackle, but I think he's a damn good guard and Anthony Collins has done a nice job in pass protection at left tackle. He's not going to maul anybody, but I think he's solid in pass protection.
You lose defensive tackle Geno Atkins and none of them are Atkins, of course, but you can get by with what you got there. Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson both play the run pretty well at end. Vontaze Burfict is a beast. Nelson plays well, safety George Iloka's not going to kill you, cornerback Adam Jones is good. Then you have guys roll in. Linebacker Vinny Rey had a great game against the Ravens the first time. Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith is the big matchup outside for them. They're struggling at center. Everyone wants to know what's wrong with Ray Rice. They can't get any push whatsoever in the run game. Then you've got left tackle Eugene Monroe against Johnson and right tackle Michael Oher vs. Dunlap and they'll win that and win the game.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-17. If they come out and play power football, forget it. It will be a close game. Just put them away, then run it. They're good enough on their offensive line. If you don't have the tight ends, work the tempo. They've got enough players to get the ball to. If tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham aren't playing, then spread them out. They've got enough receivers. It's not like either of those guys are going to be a road-grader in the run game. Get wide receiver Andrew Hawkins on the field. It will make running back Giovani Bernard more effective. Put three and four receivers in and crack some creases for that little guy.
The Ravens haven't been very good in the red zone on offense or defense lately and that's a problem. Especially on defense, where they've allowed touchdowns on their last six trips. At one point after 11 games they had allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns and now they've given up at least one in each of the last four games. They've got a heck of a kicker, but they haven't been able to score touchdowns.
When you look at the way the Bengals play at home and how proficient Dalton is there and the way the Ravens have performed as a road team, I don't like the odds and there are some difficult matchups for the Ravens. The diversity of the Bengals receiving corps—we just saw the Ravens have problems tackling in the open field against New England—I can see them having similar issues against the Bengals.
Flacco isn't himself. He's dealing with a pretty serious sprained left knee. He's got the brace on, he's not very mobile, he doesn't really step into his throws the same. He doesn't move the same way at all. He looked better in the second half than he did in the first half last week. He had a little bit of his mobility back. It's a concern. The Bengals have some good athletes, you really can't run the ball. There's very little to take pressure off Joe and he's got 19 interceptions. It's not a great matchup for them. Torrey Smith has kind of slowed down. He should have already broken the team receiving record by now.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-20. The Bengals are undefeated at home, the Ravens are a poor road team this year and they have a hobbled quarterback. The Bengals don't have Atkins, but they still have a formidable enough front seven to get to Flacco. You put it all together with a motivated Bengals team that I would imagine would not want Baltimore in the playoffs. I think it adds up to a loss for the Ravens. They'll be motivated, but the question is will they be good enough.
To me the biggest matchup is the Baltimore offense vs. a very good Bengals defense. Despite the injuries the Bengals are still ranked sixth against the run and pass and this is a Baltimore offense that struggled last week against New England with Flacco dealing with his knee injury. This will be a very big test for them.
The big difference from the last time they played is the Bengals are in Cincinnati. It's funny when you look at it and the Bengals were a .500 team at home the past couple of years and now they're not only 7-0 but they're outscoring their opponents by about 100 points. Andy Dalton is significantly better at home. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talked Friday about the difference in their turnover differential at home (plus eight) compared to what they've done on the road (minus six). The Ravens have struggled on the road, too (2-5), but they did well in key road games last year and won two road games in the playoffs, but whatever reason they have struggled this year.
Joe hasn't been on the injury report this week. He says his knee is fine and feels a lot better after he sprained it two weeks ago. He said it wasn't an issue last week against New England. I don't know if that's the case because it seemed he was bothered by it early on, but the fact he's not on the report shows it's progressing. Running back Ray Rice has been plagued throughout the season with different things. He's dealt with his hip since Week 2 and he talked this week about how he's been limited by that through the course of the year and he also has a thigh injury that has him questionable for this game but it's expected he'll play.
Their biggest question mark is tackle Arthur Jones, one of their better defensive players. He's questionable with a concussion and was still going through the NFL protocol as of early Friday and had yet to take his baseline test. He didn't practice all week. All their other questionable guys, such as Rice, Torrey Smith and rush linebacker Elvis Dumervil are expected to play.
THE EDGE: Bengals 27, Ravens 21. It will be good game, close and competitive. The Bengals have scored at least 41 points in each of their last four home games and I'm impressed with their offense and what they did against Minnesota.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For the second straight season and the third time in the last five the Bengals have a playoff berth wrapped up heading into the finale. But with head coach Marvin Lewis hiding the AFC North champion hats for 48 hours and the Patriots needing a win to keep the No. 2 seed from the Bengals, this week has felt like the typical grind rather than Winter Wonderland. In those three finales Lewis called off the dogs, as he should have, but the team didn't respond the next week in the playoffs.
Never has there been so much on the line in the Lewis era, collectively and individually. Not only is the No. 2 seed out there and the chance to prevent the dangerous Ravens from coming back next week for a wild card game, but there is the shot for an 8-0 home record that has been one of the top goals for Lewis since he arrived in 2003. And Dalton, who has yet to beat the Ravens defense in a game that matters, would like to get that off his plate before he tackles the postseason question.
There's also a chance to for the defense to solidify its second top five raking under Mike Zimmer and if three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green gets 76 yards for the club's single-season receiving record and Dalton throws two touchdown passes for 33 on the season and the club record, there's a pretty good chance the Bengals offense holds on to its No. 10 ranking, marking the first time since 1989 both units have finished in the top 10.
If the Bengals can pull off Sunday's win without their two tight ends after both didn't practice this week, it would be a fitting end to a regular season they have displayed their highly-regarded depth on many occasions. Despite missing their top two defensive players for the last half of the season and starting cornerback Terence Newman for the last three, the No. 5 ranking still looms. And they're hanging at No. 10 on offense despite shifting the offensive line and moving their Pro Bowl lineman at the beginning of December.
With the losses in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, there's that nagging question for the offense about standing up to aggressive, physical defenses. The Bengals have done it at times this season. At PBS they rolled up 407 yards against the Steelers, the offense put 27 points on the Browns and while the Ravens couldn't score a touchdown in Detroit the Bengals scored three.
But if the Bengals protect like they have since they surrendered five sacks Nov. 10 in Baltimore, they should be fine. Dalton has 13 TDs and just three picks since then and 10 TDs and one pick since the shift of the left side of the line. The key against the Ravens has always been not to dig a deep deficit and unleash their pass rushers. The Bengals have scored the first touchdown in all but one home game and at PBS this season they have a 56-23 pad in the first quarter. A first-quarter lead is the best medicine against pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
The Bengals could be lacking two huge targets in Gresham and Eifert. Still, like Prisco says, that just puts more receivers on the field and backup tight Alex Smith is a reliable pass protector and if they need short-yardage, "The No. 74 is eligible" games can commence with 6-9 Dennis Roland serving as an extra tackle.
But what is going to decide this game is what has decided every home game this season: defense. Flacco is 7-4 against Zimmer, but he's thrown more picks than TDs (12-11) and he hasn't been great at PBS. In his last three games that mattered here ('09, '10 and '11), Flacco hasn't thrown for more than 195 yards and he's thrown just two touchdowns to go with six picks. And 49 days ago the Ravens could get just 189 yards of offense, the second fewest allowed by a Zimmer defense in his 95 games here. Given the state of Flacco's knee and the Ravens running game, the same type of numbers beckon.
The formula for the Ravens winning this game is a touchdown bomb to wide receiver Torrey Smith or Jacoby Jones, or Jones popping a kick or punt. Big plays like that won the Super Bowl for the Ravens last season, bailing them out in Denver and in New Orleans against the Niners to win it all.
The Bengals are vulnerable in the kicking game with Shawn Powell making his second Bengals appearance against the league's best return game but, as Harbaugh said earlier this week, it's not so much the punter but the team around the punter. And here the Bengals have also showed their depth. They lost two of their best special teams players (Dan Skuta and Jeromy Miles) and except for a 13-minute meltdown in Pittsburgh and some scary moments last week, they've survived. Keep an eye on Miles, who returns Sunday as Baltimore's fourth-best special teams tackler.
With the Ravens, it's about turnovers and big plays. It's the way the Ravens can win here. But if the Bengals prevent a big throw from Flacco, or a big kick or punt return while staying even in turnovers, homefield advantage holds at 8-0.
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