A few matchups to watch in Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium pitting the AFC North champion Bengals against the Ravens in the regular-season finale.
BENGALS QB JOE BURROW VS. THE INTANGIBLES
It's been a trying week to say the least in Bengaldom.
There's the emotional rollercoaster of watching Bills safety Damar Hamlin brought back to life in front of them Monday night on the Paycor Stadium turf and then hearing of his heartwarming recovery up the road at University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
Plus, they've played nine minutes in 15 days and are on a short, distracting week before they go back out there.
Then, there was the January Surprise the NFL threw into the locker room Friday when it decreed if the Bengals lose Sunday and the Ravens stay the No. 6 seed, the Bengals would have to go to Baltimore next week for a Wild Card Game if they lose a coin flip even though the Bengals have been declared the AFC North champion and, by rule, host. The league says it's a way to compensate for the Bills and Bengals playing 16 games because their game was cancelled.
"We don't capture everything and every rule in every policy manual and sometimes when you face situations, you have to try to make adjustments and this was one of the adjustments," is the way Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee put it.
But besides bypassing the winning percentage rule two days before a game, the NFL opened up plenty of other questions. One of them is while covering for the possibility of the Bengals losing to Buffalo, it failed to capture what would have happened if the Bengals won. To balance the Ravens-Bengals coin flip, there would have to be a coin flip for the location of a potential Bills-Bengals payoff game and a flip for the No. 1 seed if the Bengals win Sunday and the Chiefs lose to the Raiders.
But to have the legend of Seamless Joe leading the way goes a long way in levelling the playing field. Center Ted Karras recalled this week the Monday night walk down to the Bills locker room after Hamlin went to the hospital.
"I've got to give Joey B credit for that," Karras said. "He organized that, he showed great leadership and wanted to show solidarity with the Bills."
Oh yeah, the guy's having an MVP season, too. He's top six in completion percentage, passing yards per game, touchdown passes and passer rating. And he wins. He's won 10 straight December and January games. He's the first Bengals quarterback to win back-to-back division titles. He and Dan Marino are the only quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 10 wins and 30 touchdown passes in two of their first three seasons.
Like cornerback Mike Hilton said Friday when asked who he'd like to take the coin flip: "Some good luck? Can't go wrong with Joe. That guy at quarterback, he's the guy that got us here. Let them do Nine."
Plus, there'll be positivity all around Paycor. The NFL is allowing teams on Sunday to outline Hamlin's No. 3 in each 30-yard line number on the field in either Buffalo Bills Red or Buffalo Bills Blue and during warmups all players throughout the league have the option to wear black Nike T-shirts displaying "Love for Damar 3."
As Karras said about playing six days after averting tragedy, "It's a little less tough now that we've got a good prognosis here."
BENGALS RB JOE MIXON VS. RAVENS LB ROQUAN SMITH AND THE RED ZONE
Remember when Mixon said what seems to be like five years ago that the Bills have good linebackers, but they're not the Ravens? Well, here they are with the Pro Bowler Smith leading the charge in his first game against the Bengals since the trade deadline shocker moved him from the Bears to the franchise that is an assembly line for great linebackers.
So no surprise that Smith is the first player since Ravens Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis to have at least 100 tackles, two sacks and an interception in each of his first four seasons. Now in his fifth season, only Smith, Patrick Willis, Lavonte David and Brian Urlacher have 400 solo tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 15 sacks and five interceptions in their first five years.
Mixon, Burrow and Co., have already tangled with Smith at Soldier Field and it didn't go well last year in the second game of the year when Smith had the game of his life. His 53-yard pick-six early in the fourth quarter turned around a game the Bears led, 10-3, and he added a sack and nine tackles.
Mixon is quietly having a big year. He leads the Bengals with 1,187 scrimmage yards and eight scrimmage touchdowns. He has at least 1,100 scrimmage yards and at least eight scrimmage touchdowns in four of the last five seasons, something only Browns running back Nick Chubb has done in each of the last five seasons.
And he's two catches away from breaking Giovani Bernard's team record of 55 for most catches by a running back in a season.
Mixon is one of the guys they turned to when they went more bread-and-butter in the red zone after the last-snap Oct. 9 loss in Baltimore could be traced to an unsuccessful shovel pass in the third quarter that capped four straight misses from the Ravens 2. After that play, the Bengals scored touchdowns on 17 straight red-zone possessions and while they have cooled a bit (Burrow had his first red-zone pick of the year in the last game they played), they are fifth in the league in TD red-zone percentage after they were 23rd last year.
"We had tried to find ways because in the second half of last year and in the playoffs, we didn't perform very well down in the red zone," said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan this week. "There are some teams that do a really good job of it and just try to find a couple things throughout the course of a season that can make it less stressful on everybody to go get a touchdown. And obviously, we thought this shovel pass was one of those things and it clearly was not.
"And the shift from then was, you know what? We're just going to do what we do down there and that's going to be going one on one, make great throws, make good catches, and run stuff that we have a lot of confidence in as opposed to trying to do something different. So, we definitely shifted our philosophy particularly in a little red zone. And I think it's paid off for us since that game, and that was that was really a turning point for us. I think offensively in general is that game and how we came out of it."
It's a classic Ravens defense. Stingy everywhere, not to mention ranked second in preventing touchdowns in the red zone, to third in preventing points to third in preventing the run.
BENGALS NT DJ READER VS RAVENS RB J.K. DOBBINS
No matter who has been at quarterback for the Ravens under head coach John Harbaugh, they've relied on the run. With Lamar Jackson out the last four games, they've really relied on it to go 2-2 and get in the playoffs. With backup Tyler Huntley hurting with a shoulder injury, look for a wave of even more runs.
Dobbins leads the NFL with 397 rushing yards since Week 14, the first game Jackson missed, and he has at least 90 yards in three of those four games. Keep an eye on the Ravens left side and massive fullback Patrick Ricard. According to Next Gen Stats, 280 of those yards have been to the left.
But the Bengals have Reader back in the middle, where he wasn't when Baltimore rushed for 155 yards in October. In the six games since Reader has returned from a knee injury, the Bengals haven't lost and they've allowed more than 102 yards on the ground just once as he solidified their No. 5 run defense. No matter if it is Huntley or No. 3 quarterback Anthony Brown, nothing changes for the Bengals.
"(Huntley) runs the system. He doesn't do things as well as Lamar, but he does them well," said slot cornerback Mike Hilton. "(Anthony Brown) played some against Pittsburgh the last couple of weeks. We have a little film. Same type of athletic guy. Makes throws from the pocket. He's been in the system. He knows the system well.
"They like to stay on schedule. Especially against offenses like ours. They want to be able to control the ball and keep our guys on the sidelines. As a defense we have to put them in tougher situations forcing them to throw the football."
But it's been really hard on the Ravens without Jackson. The Ravens have scored 17 or fewer points in five consecutive games and are last in scoring in that stretch. The difference in the points they score with Jackson and Huntley is the greatest between two quarterbacks since Chad Pennington averaged 25.8 in 12 starts and Vinny Testaverde had 13.3 in four for the 2002 Jets.
Reader captured the emotions so eloquently of playing defense after watching Hamlin go down after making a tackle.
"He was out there playing at full speed. It's just what happens sometimes and it's just such a freak accident," Reader said. "You can't take your foot off the gas as a defender or an offensive player out there. If you're playing lightly, you're going to take your risk of getting hurt. It's the only way to play this game. You've got to play 100 miles an hour and that's how you go about it."
BENGALS S DAX HILL VS RAVENS RB JUSTICE HILL
The Brothers Hill meet for the first time in the NFL because Justice was hurt in the first game. Both are key players on special teams and that's always a huge part of this matchup with Harbaugh's kicking game DNA and Bengals specials teams coordinator Darrin Simmons' 20-year success in Cincinnati. The Ravens are where they always are, ranked second in the kicking game by Football Outsiders, After a slow start the perennially top ten Bengals have scratched back to high teens.
Justice has knocked off five solid kick returns in the last two weeks, including a 56-yarder against the Steelers. Dax has four tackles on teams. Their streak of never tackling each other beyond a practice at Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High School may be over.