A Marvin Lewis-John Harbaugh Bengals-Ravens AFC North Decider Playoff Play-In at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday (4:15 p.m., Cincinnati's Local 12) is supposed to be a tug of war. A jukebox bar brawl. Three yards and a seam of FieldTurf. Like the last time they played here when the Bengals didn't score a touchdown and won on five Mike Nugent field goals.
But after an AFL game broke out last month in Baltimore in the Ravens 31-24 victory, there may not be enough room on the scoreboard to post those out-of-town scores. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco got 144 of his 270 yards on four passes. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 194 of his career-high 373 yards in the final 14:02 without Pro Bowl receiver A. J. Green when faced with a 14-point deficit.
Now Green and his NFL-leading 11 catches of at least 35 yards are back and Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith is looking to pass Green for the rookie TD lead with both tied at seven.
"Going into this matchup, there is absolutely no way. We're so focused. We're so aware of what deep plays they're going to try and attack us with," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said after Thursday's practice. "We're going to try and make them check it down. We know (running back) Ray Rice is their leading receiver. So that's a safe bet he's going to get it to him as soon as he doesn't have anyone downfield. If you can just make Flacco take his eyes from down the field, then we have a good chance. We can't allow those explosive plays."
Crocker, 31, the nine-year veteran who has played in just one playoff game, senses a go-for-the-gusto game with everything on the line for the Bengals and a playoff homefield advantage at stake for an oddly desperate (and that makes them very dangerous) Ravens team.
"This game has the best implication of my career. Where I know if we get a win I get a chance to play in the postseason," he said. "My teammates know that. Let it all hang out. I can't say we're treating it like any other week. This is the chance of a lifetime. What better reason to play the last week of season? Let it all hang loose. It's going to be a packed house. They're going for a first-round bye. They're going to give us their best."
The explosive plays have blown up on the Bengals more than they ever have under defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, particularly late in games. Just last week they held down Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald for three quarters until he broke away for two passes for 69 yards in Arizona's furious fourth-quarter rally.
The numbers don't suggest disaster when compared to the rest of the NFL. According to Elias, the Bengals have allowed 18 passes of at least 30 yards, which is tied for the 17th-fewest, and seven of at least 40, which is tied for seventh fewest. But those plays have come in bunches and usually late, and in the last month or so as the Bengals have grappled since the Nov. 13 loss to the Steelers with the loss of their best cover cornerback in Leon Hall.
The Ravens set sail against the Bengals the following week when Smith went off for 165 yards and veteran Anquan Boldin scored on a 35-yarder against the revamped Bengals secondary featuring limping cornerback Adam Jones. Now Boldin is the one out with injury.
"I still had a torn groin back then," said Jones, who was playing his first game in more than a year. "But it's a lot better now and I'm getting more comfortable."
Life has certainly been tougher without Hall and Johnathan Joseph, the Texans free agent named a Pro Bowl starter. But Crocker says the secondary is beginning to mesh.
"We've jelled a lot more," Crocker said. "Anytime you get a new element, you have to get used to what he does, and he has to get familiar with how you're going to play. Over the last couple of weeks now we've got a really good feel of what we're supposed to do and how we're supposed to do it."
Crocker came off the practice field encouraged about the crisp week his team is having.
"It's like a brand new season," he said. "I think we're really focused. We know this team."
Jones says the Ravens receivers didn't flat out beat the Bengals man-to-man. He says Smith's 38-yard touchdown catch and 49-yarder that set up another one came against zone and the Bengals suffered from lack of technique. He is particularly mindful of the Ravens double moves against the zone and where the Bengals have to be.
"We have to eliminate the big plays and stop No. 27," Jones said of Rice.
That's what the Bengals did when they stuffed Arizona running back Beanie Wells last week while draped on Fitzgerald, but when Crocker and Jones had a miscommunication late in the game while playing a zone Fitzgerald was all by himself for a 39-yarder and the highlights showed Lewis separating his two DBs on the sideline as they screamed at each other.
"But then you saw we sat down next to each other," Jones said. "Heat of the moment."
"It's like a marriage," Crocker said. "You're going to fight and you're going to love each other. We laugh about it now ... we're both passionate guys. We're going to fight and we're going to make up. Love the one you're with."
Dalton was missing his main man last time in Baltimore in Green and while he had big numbers, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden isn't altogether comfortable with a pass-happy game against Baltimore's ravenous pass rush.
But he couldn't help be impressed with how Dalton brought the Bengals back after suffering his career-high third interception.
"We did show the ability to drop back, pick up their blitzes and throw strikes downfield," Gruden said. "But we also want to keep balance as a big part of our offense. It was an abnormal thing for them to have that type of lead and almost relinquish it when they know you have to pass. That's when they feast on people. They sacked Alex Smith nine times when they had the lead."
Dalton has thrown just one interception since the Ravens got him three times that day and for the most part Gruden likes his decisions. But there's always a line. There are times he might have been a touch conservative.
"Maybe," Gruden said. "Sometimes you're damned if you do and damned if you don't at that position. He takes a few shots and somebody makes a play. You don't take a shot and I'm yelling at him on the sidelines to throw the ball."
But Gruden and Lewis do like the way Dalton has taken care of the ball down the stretch.
"Turnovers usually decide the game, and I turned the ball over too many times," Dalton said. "I have to look back at how I've been playing and correct those things. It's just being smarter with the football ... there were a couple of throws in there that I threw that I shouldn't have made, whereas now I know not to make those throws."
But now Green is back. It may be one of those games. Crocker figures Flacco is going to keep taking his shots.
"Fool me once, shame on you," Crocker said. "Fool us twice, shame on me."