Sunday's AFC North game for first place in Baltimore (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) features the initial look at the Ja'Marr-Lamar Show as Bengals rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase seeks to use his Rookie of the Year hands to wrest this rivalry away from Ravens MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Jackson is 5-0 against the Bengals since his first NFL start against them during an M&T Bank Stadium game in November of 2018. But the Bengals.com Media Roundtable sees the Cincinnati defense as the reason this series is getting back to push. Yet The Table is split if Sunday is a return to the days A.J. Green and Andy Dalton tortured the Ravens during the late stages of the pre-Jacksonian Age.
Alex Marvez, the NFL Sirius Talkmaster who covered the first Bengals-Ravens game 25 years ago in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, thinks the Bengals are ready to make the move. So does The Athletic's senior writer Paul Dehner, Jr., a Moeller High School prodigy on Nov. 3, 1996 when Jeff Blake microwaved the Bengals to a Doug Pelfrey last-snap field goal. Dehner sees rookie kicker Evan McPherson giving the Bengals a break-out win in the same fashion.
The other side of The Table says it won't be surprised the Bengals take down Jackson. But The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec, a long-time Ravens beat reporter, thinks the Ravens have just too much big-game experience for the emerging Bengals. Richard Skinner, digital sports columnist for Cincinnati's Channel 12, who feels a heck of a lot better than the day Colts great Johnny Unitas asked him how he was feeling when he covered that '96 game in Memorial, thinks the Bengals can win it but knows Jackson is the Johnny U. of our time and says he has Sunday's final say of an all-timer.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first:
I'll be the first to admit it, I didn't see it at this point in the season to be a showdown. I thought these were the same old Bengals entering the season. But they are not so far. Emphasis on so far. You can't ask for much more for what this team has done so far. Kudos to them for that. The question for me is, is have they figured out Lamar Jackson? And it's a different Lamar Jackson than we have seen. Because Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman has taken the training wheels off the bicycle so to speak and opened up the entire offense to him. And I Iike that aspect of him.
But I think it might be the Bengals time. As crazy as that is, Baltimore has been playing really well. No matter how the Bengals offensive line plays or doesn't play, one thing that can't be questioned is that wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase is a fantastic player and he's added a dimension to this offense and I do feel that the Ravens secondary is susceptible without cornerback Marcus Peters and all the weapons the Bengals have in front of them. And there are the upgrades on the defensive line for the Bengals, Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi, B.J. Hill was a fantastic preseason trade.
THE EDGE: Joe Burrow and company prove they finally arrive in the NFL, which, because I say it, will be a kiss of death for the Cincinnati Bengals. But I like where this team is at and I think they pull off the proverbial upset. BENGALS, 26-24.
The Ravens are heading into their bye, they're playing well and Lamar has never lost in October. They understand what a big game this is. Would I be surprised if the Bengals won? Absolutely not. With the Ravens you never know what you're going to get every week. They easily could have and should have perhaps lost to the Lions and the Colts.
You don't know what you're going to get, but what they showed last week is one of their most impressive games of the season. I guess I'm banking on them putting one of those types of games together and just kind of using their home field to get the win.
THE EDGE: I just trust them a little more in a big game than I trust the Bengals. Not to say the Bengals can't win one. They're playing capable. We've seen that. But the Ravens are in these kinds of games almost every week. RAVENS, 27-24.
Your mind can wander a bit about how you would feel about the Bengals if they were to pull it off on Sunday. The whole expectation of the season, of how quickly this timeline will have been ludicrously sped up on advancing this team's arrival. It all makes sense if they can go into Baltimore and win it. It has a whole lot of Carson Palmer in '04 to it when they beat the Ravens, 27-26, if you pull it off. The catapult game that makes you feel very real. I don't know if they're ready yet. I think they are. I think I've seen enough in six games to say that this team is absolutely capable of winning this game and there's not something fake about who they are this year. I think they are legitimately good enough to do it.
THE EDGE: The Bengals are being underestimated a little bit. Lamar is very, very good. The Ravens have won a ton of games just because of his will. They might do that again. But I kind of am starting to believe in this team and I think they pull it off. Evan McPherson at the gun like Shayne Graham in '04. BENGALS, 24-23.
This is a two-fold process. This is the best Bengals defense by far Lamar Jackson has faced, a defense that has a chance to stop him because of what they do up front. They've got the best middle linebacker they've had since Lamar Jackson has been in the league by far in Logan Wilson. More team speed from sideline-to-sideline to defend him. Going in you feel good about that, where the past he was such a problem. Just look at the numbers and that iconic video game-like run he had in 2019 that really solidified how great of an athlete he is. They just had no answer for the guy. I think they've got answers.
On the flip side, does Joe Burrow have answers the second time around against Baltimore? Look at what happened to Justin Herbert the first time he saw that Baltimore defense last week. 34-6. Joe Burrow has seen it once. He had a chance to make corrections and he also has Number One (Ja'Marr Chase) on his side this time around that he can throw it to. I think there are a lot of fascinating storylines, but I think it starts with the Bengals defense having a chance to slow down Lamar Jackson.
THE EDGE: The Bengals are good enough to beat them. By no means would a win make you go, 'Wow, what an upset.' They are underdogs, so it would be an upset and on paper Baltimore is probably the better team and they still have Lamar Jackson. But this team has battled and I think they'll battle this one to the end. Justin Tucker from 54 at the gun off the crossbar. RAVENS, 23-20.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Bengals-Ravens is a rivalry that has swung wildly in the 21st century.
Before old Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis arrived in 2003 to transform the Bengals, Baltimore was 5-1 against the Bengals. Lewis legitimized Cincy in the AFC North largely because he was 19-13 against his old team in 16 seasons.
When kicker Justin Tucker beat the Bengals in overtime of the 2013 Dalton-Green Hail Mary Game at M&T, Baltimore had won its fifth game in the last six against Cincinnati. From that point until Jackson's first NFL start against Cincinnati, the Bengals were 8-2 against the Ravens.
Now here is Jackson and his 5-0 mark against Cincinnati and, like Lewis pitting Carson Palmer against his old defense, the Bengals defense of Hendrickson and Hubbard and Bates and Bell have to solve Jackson to get into the AFC North mix.
But it's going to come down to quarterback Joe Burrow's offense. The Lions, with a 32:23 time of possession, brought Baltimore to the brink and lost on the last play. The Colts had a 10-3 first-half lead with 16:24 possessing the ball before bowing to the Ravens in overtime after inexorably losing the possession time to Jackson.
And if the offense can't keep him off the field, they have to keep up with him in scoring. So Burrow is going to need that extra touchdown Sunday. The Bengals are averaging 24 points per game, the Ravens 28. They've never scored more than 21 against Jackson, which is just as big a reason for his unbeaten record against them as much as his 6.6 yards per carry against them.
So when you think about it like that, the big matchup isn't Logan Wilson chasing down Jackson. It is the Bengals' pass protection keeping Burrow clear of the vaunted Ravens pressure. The one that hit him 15 times last year and the one that just melted Justin Herbert last week. The pressure that puts Jackson back on the field. Because, look, no matter how good your defense is, and the Bengals have their best one in years and is currently in the top ten, Jackson is going to get 24 points on a bad day.
If he has the ball. The Bengals have been just good enough on offense. But too many three-and-outs. It's the difference between 4-2 and 5-1 and 6-0. That's why they're ranked 21st. They know if they disappear like they did in Detroit last week, when they went 20 minutes without a first down in the first half, Jackson can hijack the game.
The Bengals are middle of the pack in time of possession at 30:03. So maybe it's not an extra touchdown that's the difference, but two long drives that end in field goals that swipe about 12 minutes. Or maybe even a three-minute three-and-out as opposed to one that takes 37 seconds. Whatever it takes to nudge that clock to 33, 34, 35 minutes. A punt after a four-minute drive against the Ravens is a win because they historically turn you over so efficiently. Not as much this year without cornerback Marcus Peters and his 31 career picks (they uncharacteristically go into this one tied with the Bengals at minus-two turnover differential), but their pressure can create one at a moment's notice. Particularly those game-changing QB sack strips from free runners the Bengals have spent the week trying to prevent.
It will be recalled that Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale was peeved when the Bengals settled for a field goal late in the Ravens' 27-3 win in Baltimore. Irony would also be the winner if the Bengals keep it long enough to win it at the end on the leg of rookie Evan McPherson. Burrow and Chase are here to match Jackson in the rivalry. Just like McPherson hopes to counter the length of the incomparable Justin Tucker as the series continues to swing wildly.