The Bengals go from last Sunday's playoff game in Pittsburgh to this Sunday's playoff tuneup at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Ravens in which head coach Marvin Lewis hopes to bottle the best of his 2012 team in one last show at home before pushing off the dock for the postseason.
Even Lewis admits it's a hard game to get his arms around. Last week the Bengals were chasing their biggest win in the Green-Dalton era. This week they're stalking a concept instead of victory as they try to nail down an invisible intangible called momentum. After going through this all before in 2005 and 2009, Lewis seems to have decided to play it straight.
And the Bengals.com Media Roundtable thinks that means a win that makes the Bengals 10-6 because it isn't wholly convinced the Ravens can or will play it straight with their injury situation, and if they do, the Bengals are hotter. So it is a unanimous call for the home team. The Table also thinks the best Wild Card game matchup for the Bengals next week is a rematch in Houston.
Jay Morrison, the Bengals beat man for the Dayton Daily News, says you can't recognize these two teams from the opener played 110 days ago and thinks the Bengals youngsters use their season-long experience to reverse the Ravens victory back on Sept. 10.
Solomon Wilcots, the former Bengals safety analyzing the game for CBS, says he saw his old team grow up in front of his eyes last week in Pittsburgh and thinks Cincy has an edge defensively and psychologically over the grappling Ravens.
Alex Marvez of FoxSports.com believes the Ravens are so beat up defensively that they'll have to take a pass Sunday while Lewis's most dangerous team finishes strong.
"I'd rather play the Colts and the Ravens than the Bengals," Marvez says of the postseason.
Former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, an analyst for WLW-700 AM who played on Lewis's first playoff team in 2005, calls it for the home team because its defense bears no resemblance to the unit that went under, 44-13, in Baltimore in the opener.
Let's go around the table:
I hate to use the cliché, but it comes down to who wants it more. I think if someone gets up by 10, 14 points, the starters might get pulled. I think they'll play in the first half, but the second half is up in the air and it depends on the score. If the score gets too big, that will be it.
No question the Bengals are a different team than they were in the opener. They're more seasoned in the middle of their offensive line and they didn't have (Kyle) Cook at center. Kevin Zeitler was a rookie playing his first game at right guard against Haloti Ngata and I talked to Kevin this week about using this game as a measuring stick. He said he gave himself a failing grade in that first game.
Another interesting matchup is how linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict do against Ravens running back Ray Rice. Rey has improved since then and Burfict wasn't even playing and now he leads the team in tackles. Rice is the one guy that if you shut him down, you take away so many dimensions from their offense, but not many people have been able to do it.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 20-16. I give it to the Bengals just because they're playing better than the Ravens right now and they're at home. They've won six of the last seven and they're a young team that needs to get on a roll going into the playoffs while the Ravens have a lot of older players that have been there before.
BENGALS BEST PLAYOFF MATCHUP: I think Baltimore would be the best situation. For them to play Baltimore, they would have to lose and you know the old adage you can't beat a team three times in one season. Plus, there's the familiarity and Baltimore is playing the least well of those four teams coming down the stretch.
Marvin Lewis said it best. How do I know who to sit out of 53 guys? He doesn't want any guys not feeling slighted if they're not playing. He talked about the goals that are out there for guys like A.J. Green and 100 catches. Trying to win a game against Baltimore, one of the best teams in the division. Trying to win 10 games. There are a lot of things out there for this young football team in terms of development that it looks like they have every guy play.
It's a dominant defensive team. In terms of defensive line rotation it's the best I've ever seen around here and it's comparable to the NASCAR defense of the Giants. Of Atkins, Dunlap and Michael Johnson, who are you going to double team? In Mike Zimmer they've got their best defensive mind in the building since Dick LeBeau. At the beginning of the season I thought the defense would be this good. It just took a little while.
There are some concerns offensively. Whenever they can't run the ball, they're going to struggle. Last week in Pittsburgh was proof positive of that. But they still took shots downfield. The one thing I love about this quarterback is he knows how to win games. And you've got a guy like A.J. They don't get down. There have been receivers around here if they didn't make a big play early in the game, they quit on you. Mentally they'd check out. They don't have that with their best players.
No doubt that Andy needs to improve his long-ball accuracy. I don't think it's ever going to be what people were used to around here with Carson Palmer. But what Andy gives you is the guts and guile to find a different way to win.
I played against a guy like that most of his career; No. 16 in San Francisco. I'm not saying he's Joe Montana. But I'm telling you, I watched his whole career, played against him a lot and Sam (Wyche) talked a lot about him. The first three quarters may not be pretty. That's why he had all the comebacks. Did he ever lead the league in passing yards? No. Did he ever lead the league in touchdown passes? No. Today he's not ranked highly in the top statistical categories. But he won games.
I thought the Bengals were very resilient last week. To overcome two turnovers in the fourth quarter and finding a way to win without being able to run the ball was very impressive. To me, I saw a team grow up last week.
THE EDGE: Bengals. The Ravens are a different team than one that beat the Bengals 44-13 in Week 1. They're searching for their identity. I believe the Bengals are a much better team. Mentally, psychologically they're feeling better about themselves. I think Baltimore is still searching a little bit.
BENGALS BEST PLAYOFF MATCHUP: Houston. You don't want to go to Denver and to Gillette in New England, trust me. You want Houston. The reason I like Cincinnati back in that game, back in Reliant Stadium one year later is it's going to be different. It won't be like last year. This is a young team where that kind of familiarity breeds confidence. The A.J. Greens, the Daltons, the Atkins, the Michael Johnsons have now been there. They're going to have that swagger now, the belief they can upset them there and I think that's a game they can win.
Each coach knows their team. I don't think Baltimore is going to play a lot of their guys because they're so banged up. So if the Bengals get out to a big lead, I could see them pulling guys out as well. To me, the focus for the Bengals can't be the Ravens, but it has to be the Patriots or whatever team they end up playing in the playoffs.
I don't think their failures in past playoffs stem from anything that happened in Week 16 in terms of preparation. They were beat up and tired. It was a team that didn't have a lot of depth, peaked in mid-December, and was done. But that's not the case with this Bengals team. There's a lot of upside there.
THE EDGE: Bengals 27-13. I just don't see the Ravens playing all their guys. I don't see them having a reason to do it. With all the injuries they've had, they can't afford to lose anyone else.
BENGALS BEST PLAYOFF MATCHUP: Maybe Houston, but how would New England cover the middle of the field against them? Their safeties are bad. I'd rather play the Colts than the Bengals. I'd rather play the Ravens than the Bengals. Because of their defense, Dalton and their ability to run the ball with BenJarvus (Green-Ellis). They're a good team. Look, it's going to get rough after the first round, but I don't discount them at all. They've been great with the resiliency they've shown, the comeback, and what they showed against Pittsburgh.
I was glad to hear Marvin say they're going to play to win it. This is a team that still has a lot to prove and I think if this team is as mature as everyone says, they'll come out and play for themselves. It reminds me of the '07 Giants. They didn't have anything to play for in their last game, played a great game against the Patriots and it propelled them to win the Super Bowl. I think the Bengals are a similar team, too, that is riding its defense and trying to find ways to put up points.
I remember in '05 when we played the last game in Kansas City getting ready for the playoffs the next week. Guys were wondering when they were going to get pulled and we got crushed. It was different. It was on the road, we had just won the division, it was New Year's, it was first-time success. There was a lot going on.
The Ravens defense is a good test for the offense. They play a little bit of everything and the Bengals will see that in the playoffs and they need the work to establish the rhythm they haven't had since they played Oakland (Nov. 25). They need to be able to score more points because they're going to be playing Pro Bowl quarterbacks the rest of the way and they're going to have to keep up.
Obviously they've got to run the ball better than they did in Pittsburgh. They missed some blocks, but LeBeau knows them so well and the Bengals know Pittsburgh so well, it was that kind of game and it was on the road against a real good defense. Plus, that was Kyle Cook's first game back at center and he'll play better as he gets his legs under him.
I think the defense is playing at a high level. They're playing with confidence, they've got an identity, they don't give up big plays, and they don't give up anything in the red zone.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 21-17. By far they're a better team than they were in the opener. At that point Mike Johnson was the only healthy defensive end. Now they've got a seven-man strong rotation and that's going to help the rest of the defense. They'll be able to stop the run and that will give them more opportunity to get to Flacco. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth always plays well against Terrell Suggs and he should play well against him at home. The Bengals have to find a way to turn field goals into touchdowns.
BENGALS BEST PLAYOFF MATCHUP: Houston. They've lost their middle linebacker, one of their good defensive ends in Brooks Reed has been banged up, running back Arian Foster gut hurt last week even though he's going to play this week. It seems like they've got a bunch of injuries and they've won a lot of close games. The Jets, Lions. I think Houston would probably be the best matchup for the Bengals because I think their defensive line can control that game a little more than if they played New England because Tom Brady throws the ball quicker than they've seen all year and Gronk will be back. When they played Peyton Manning they didn't get a sack at all. I'm not saying it would be easy to beat Houston, but for what the Bengals are doing well now, rushing the passer, keeping it close, and winning at the end, I think that bodes better for Houston than Tom Brady because he scores a lot and Peyton Manning is just on a tear. They played Denver well in a close game, but I would have to favor Peyton Manning over Dalton at this point. Plus, Houston beat them last year and may overlook the Bengals.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bengals are going to try to win. The Ravens would like to win. But neither of them need to win.
On a 26-degree day between Christmas and New Year's, that sounds like a win for the home team. Especially since the bandaged visitors look like they're coming from Valley Forge and the hosts are lining up with 17 of their 22 Opening Day starters.
And it sure sounds like Lewis learned a valuable lesson from '05 and '09. Young teams like the Bengals can't turn off the switch one week before the playoffs and then find it again for the biggest game of the year. The Ravens, in their fifth postseason in five years, can do whatever they want.
No matter who the Ravens trot out there, it's very intriguing when the Bengals line up on defense. Two guys that weren't in the starting lineup in that opener against the Ravens—veteran safety Chris Crocker and rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict—have been two huge additions.
Crocker wasn't even in the league, but when he arrived in late September he began the process of stabilizing the secondary. Burfict started the third game in place of the season-ending knee injury to Thomas Howard and hasn't looked back. He heads into his 14th start about to claim the team tackling title and has given the NFL's sixth-ranked defense some edgy toughness, not to mention a beyond-his-years instinctiveness.
It would be a shock if Ravens running back Ray Rice plays much, but whether it is Rice or rookie Bernard Pierce, the Bengals look up to challenging Baltimore's physical style. The Ravens may have lost three out of the last four, but they just punished the Giants with Rice and Pierce for 224 yards on 45 carries.
Lewis's big concern is his offense. Can the pass game go long? Can running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis get back to his five-yards-per-carry of the second half of the season before the Steelers throttled him on a yard per carry last week?
Both aspects figure to get a workout. While stingy against the pass (the Ravens have given up the second-fewest TD passes in the league with an 80 passer rating yielding just a little more than seven yards per throw), Baltimore is ranked 24th against the run.
How does Lewis play it? Like a third preseason game? if the offense looks good in the first half and is able to score a couple of TDs and a field goal, get them out with the momentum? Or does he work on their second-half miseries? In the month of December the offense has scored three touchdowns in the second half.
It looks like the Bengals already have the momentum for Sunday. They're 6-1 since Nov. 11 with their only news who goes on injured reserve. The Ravens are 1-3 since Dec. 2 and making their way through the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
The Bengals would like to keep it going. This time it's the Ravens trying to turn on the switch.