Armed with both A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd, a pair of wide receivers that have stunned the Ravens in Baltimore down through the years, the Bengals seek their first AFC North road victory since Boyd's fourth-down magic in the last minute of the 2017 season knocked them out of the playoffs.
And the Bengals.com Media Roundtable puts the Bengals into another wild fourth quarter with a shot to win it.
They see the Ravens' punishing run game eventually wearing them down, but not before the Bengals make it interesting with the help of rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec, long-time Ravens chronicler, thinks there are elements that make it an uneasy matchup for the two-time AFC North champions until late. Alex Marvez of Sirius NFL Radio is a big Burrow guy, but believes Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson's mastery of the Bengals holds in what he sees as a game the Bengals still progress.
Locally, The Dayton Daily News' Laurel Pfahler thinks the Bengals can score on the Ravens, but not enough. Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic doesn't see a much different script unfolding in what he sees as a tight Ravens' win courtesy of their run game carrying the day.
Let's go around The Table. As always, ladies, visitors and the alphabet first.
I think this one is on the high-scoring end. I don't see the Baltimore defense being as good as it has been in the past and as we've seen, Joe Burrow can get some things going with the offense. They're hoping they can get something going again with running back Joe Mixon off his big day last Sunday.
But on the other side, the Bengals just struggle with quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson. Tackling still hasn't been all that much better this year, so I think they'll again have some problems with him in the run game as they have in his previous three starts against the Bengals.
THE EDGE: Baltimore gets ahead in the end. Jackson running the ball is going to be the difference. RAVENS, 31-24
If you want me to run through it, I think run is where we start in this game. Jacksonville was not able to take advantage of a shaky Bengals run defense last week. Cincinnati got a little bit better and if Carl Lawson does in indeed start at end and is on the field more and Geno Atkins returns, how much better will this group be against a Ravens team you know is going to do everything it can to grind it out?
And if they do that, can Baltimore get something going in its deep passing game, which has been shaky and they're not hitting on all cylinders with that. The last time Lamar Jackson played Cincinnati he had a perfect quarterback rating, so how much has really changed? You look at what happened to the Bengals against the run in Cleveland a few weeks ago, as well as the interior of this Bengals offensive line, and it just has to get better and maybe with age it will.
Joe Burrow has been great. I know some things are going to come along. The deep passing game is going to click in time. I think about Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and how he had problems connecting at times, I think about two seasons ago with Michael Gallup and how it just took them time to work together. When you consider Joe not having an offseason and a limited preseason, what he's doing is almost unprecedented for someone to come in and be as great as he is right away. Very bullish on him. I think it's important for this Bengals team to try and get going what they had last week in the run game again. Baltimore is just too good and too opportunistic to throw constantly against them. You're going to have to get something going in the run game. It doesn't have to be what Joe Mixon did last week with 151 yards and a couple of touchdowns. It's more being able to run some clock and being able to be a little less predictable in the offense.
THE EDGE: This will be a better game than last year. I think the Bengals continue to grow moving closer and closer to where they want to be. RAVENS, 31-20.
When I went out to practice Wednesday and Thursday, the Ravens didn't have 10 starters on the field. Most of the guys that were out are going to play Sunday, but it still hasn't been a very cohesive week from a practice standpoint for them. But even before that, I thought this is a dangerous matchup for the Ravens. From what I've seen watching the Bengals, they're obviously improved. They've always given the Ravens good games in a difficult matchup. Special teams is always really good. They have enough offensive weapons. They've got a quarterback who seems to be bringing excitement and hope. I think it is very possible this game is in doubt at least early in the fourth quarter.
I give the Ravens the edge because I don't know if the Bengals can stop them for four quarters, specifically the run game because it still seems like that's a work in progress for them. And I know the protection has been a little better, but I also question whether the Ravens by game's end get to Burrow a little bit against a Bengals offensive line that has been kind of much-maligned. But my expectations are for a tight, one-score game and there to be some doubt about the outcome until sometime in the fourth quarter.
THE EDGE: Tight game heading into the fourth quarter, but I think the Ravens might be able to wear down the Bengals a little bit, create a big play with their pass rush by finally getting to Burrow, and then by the end of the game the Ravens running game starts popping and controlling tempo. RAVENS, 26-20
I don't see this one turning out the way the Bengals want, but I see it as a really interesting game for them at this point. They want to be seen as a team that stops the run. How many times have we heard that over the last nine months? They're dedicated to it. They spent money on it. They spent draft picks on it. So focused on the run because it's such a big part of winning the division. Well, in the first game in the division they got it run down their throats in embarrassing fashion and now they've got a chance for redemption. How different are they against the run than they were in Cleveland a few weeks ago? Well, I guess we'll find out. I don't think they're there yet and I think that's going to be why they lose this game. I think they're improving, but they still have a ways to go.
I think the rest of it will look a lot like it has through four weeks. The offense will move the ball. Burrow will make plays. He has been so good against the blitz this year. And he's not your typical rookie quarterback in that regard. Normally, yeah, blitz the hell out of the rookie quarterback. You can sense that Burrow relishes the idea of them doing that. He thinks that's them playing into his strength and underestimating him and he loves it and you sense that. I think he'll have some success, but the concern is that wide receiver Tyler Boyd is on cornerback Marlon Humphrey and that's one where Boyd isn't going to win as often as he usually does because Humphrey is the real deal. I don't know if A.J. Green can win. They need him to start winning one-on-ones against whoever is lined up across from him. And then you're relying on Tee Higgins, a rookie, or Auden Tate, a guy who is your fourth wide receiver. At some point, you have to win those. It won't be easy. I think Burrow can make the plays, but can the receivers get open enough?
THE EDGE: You can see it going the way of Cleveland. Some red zone failures and some inability to stop the run that ends up being the difference in a close loss. Can't stop the run yet. RAVENS, 30-20.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As in every division matchup, a franchise's blueprints are revealed starkly and decisively in the perpetual chase to keep up with the Joneses.
Or, in the Bengals case the past offseason, keep up with the Jacksons.
They haven't come close to stopping NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in his three starts against Cincinnati. Last year he did everything but give them a tour of the Inner Harbor. In the first game he rushed for a career-high 152 yards. In the second game he put up a perfect passer rating.
So the Bengals went out after the last decimal point was rung up and put up some big numbers themselves, committing about $130 million to the defense in free agency to address such issues and then drafted three fast linebackers. They even signed Ravens middle linebacker Josh Bynes, fresh off captaining Baltimore's fifth-ranked run defense, which gives you an idea of the Ravens' defensive depth.
It wasn't all about stopping Jackson, but it was a prime mover. Kind of how the Ravens addressed their A.J. Green problem a few years ago, back when head coach John Harbaugh muttered once after another Green Day in Baltimore, "Maybe we'll cover him once before he retires."
Green isn't the sole reason the Ravens went out and drafted Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the first round in 2017, the same year they signed Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr to a big free-agent deal. Or why they stunned the world and traded for Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters last year in mid-season to basically replace Carr. But they certainly had Green and his ilk in mind.
So here we are. The Bengals overhauled run defense got overwhelmed last month in Cleveland, but they're hoping the season debut of eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, the improvement of the kid linebackers and three more weeks of playing together allows them to make a stand against Jackson.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is also trying to adjust his pieces after experiencing Jackson's two-game clinic. Defensive end Carl Lawson looks like he'll replace Carlos Dunlap on the run downs and use Dunlap on passing downs. With the signing of veteran strong safety Vonn Bell, Anarumo has three safeties at his disposal with starting free safety Jessie Bates (playing some elite ball) and backup strong Shawn Williams bringing eight years of hard-nosed AFC North rivalries with him that maybe they can use as an extra body in the box and in coverage.
On the other side it is Joe Burrow vs. Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale's infamous blitzes, made possible by Humphrey and Peters locking down on wide receivers. Humphrey moves into the slot against three receivers, so that pits him against the Bengals' most productive receiver this season in Tyler Boyd. Martindale doesn't like to travel his cornerbacks, so we'll see if Green can finally bust out against Peters or some kind of combo of hybrid Jimmy Smith and cornerback Anthony Averett, a 2018 fourth-rounder now getting more time with 2016 fourth-rounder (another bow to Green?) Tavon Young out for the season.
Burrow has his hands full. In the 13 seasons John Harbaugh has coached the Ravens, only one rookie quarterback has won a game in Baltimore. Chicago's Mitchell Trubisky in 2017 is it and, not only that, since Baltimore got back into the league in 1996 the Ravens are 17-2 against rookie QBs at home, stacking overall No. 1 picks such as the Mannings and Baker Mayfield like so much cordwood along the way.
That's because it seems like the Ravens are always versatile enough to blitz and these Ravens love to blitz even if it's not a rookie quarterback. Only the Steelers blitz more. But after the Chiefs ripped them with screen passes two weeks ago in the Ravens' only loss and Washington moved the ball in similar fashion last week, Martindale has taken heat for blitzing too much even though there hasn't been much pressure from his front four.
The Chiefs are so unique, but quarterback Patrick Mahomes did flip 14 of his 31 completions against the Ravens to backs and tight ends and the Bengals are coming out of a game running back Joe Mixon had a season-high six, catches, one for a touchdown, and the tight ends, Drew Sample and Cethan Carter, each receptions of at least 20 yards. All guys to keep an eye on in Burrow's first start against an all-out defense that began the century setting NFL records under future Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and is in the third season under Martindale after two seasons ranked Nos. 1 and 4, respectively. Mixon injured a shin in practice this week, went limited Thursday and Friday and is categorized as questionable. That's what he was going into last week's game with a chest issue and he came out of it as the AFC Offensive Player of the Week .
And, this game always offers up a special teams soufflé pitting Bengals assistant head coach Darrin Simmons, the NFL's longest tenured special teams coach, against John Harbaugh, the Ravens wildly successful head coach and the rare special teams coach to make the jump.
The Ravens' kicking game is ranked No. 1 by Football Outsiders, the web site that ranked the Bengals No. 1 last season. Baltimore is still at it with Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in the game, and although punter Sam Koch has made one Pro Bowl he's known to have the most diverse arsenal of kicks in the NFL. And they've already got the NFL's first kick return TD of the season, thanks to rookie wide receiver Devin Duvernay's 93-yarder that makes him the NFL's kick return leader.
Now flip it and Bengals kick returner Brandon Wilson is right behind Duvernay as the only returner with three of at least 40 yards. Kicker Randy Bullock is tied for the league lead in scoring and field goals in a season he has become the Bengals' all-time accuracy leader and he's one behind the touchbacks leader. And Kevin Huber's punting average is a career-high 47.9 yards.
The Bengals' specialists were ranked fourth by Football Outsiders and slid to seventh last week. Check out next week's rankings. If they move up in that category, they've got a good chance of keeping Sunday's game in range for Burrow and Mixon.
The recipe for a win is pretty simple against such a grinding offense that steals the clock. Defense and special teams can't put you behind and your offense has to grind itself.