In the most significant Paul Brown Stadium game the Bengals have played since quarterback Joe Burrow's debut last season in an empty building, they go against the Ravens before a packed house Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) with a chance to help realize the dreams of the Burrow Blueprint to all but win the AFC North title.
Less than 48 hours after the Bengals.com Media Roundtable convened last week, the Ravens had to make 12 Christmas Day additions to the game roster after not bringing quarterback Lamar Jackson on the trip and putting backup Tyler Huntley on the COVID list.
The blizzard of activity buried the Bengals moves. They were able to activate off the COVID list their No. 1 cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie while their should be Pro Bowl nose tackle D.J. Reader went on the COVID list.
Unless Jackson helicopters into The Banks Sunday morning, that sounds like ex-Bengal Josh Johnson is going to make his ninth NFL start in his 13-year pro sojourn on his 10th day as Raven, a fact that wasn't available to The Table.
But it most likely wouldn't have moved the needle much. Former Bengals safety Solomon Wilcots, who puts his foot down as the host of Sirius NFL Radio's "Morning Drive," doesn't believe the Ravens decimated secondary can hang enough with the Bengals wide receivers man-to-man to stop both them and running back Joe Mixon. Jeff Zrebiec, long-time Ravens beat reporter and senior writer for The Athletic, can't see how a defense that had nine players missing for Thursday's practice wins on Sunday.
As for the Cincinnati contingent of two Christmas Week NFL veterans in senior writer Jay Morrison of The Athletic and Mike Petraglia of CLNS Media Sports Network, they see the Bengals winning a grind job against no matter what team Ravens head coach John Harbaugh rolls out there.
Let's go around The Table. As always, Bengals, visitors and the alphabet in that order.
You really have to be on top of (Ravens tight end Mark) Andrews and not allow him to just run free. You have to have a plan to take him away. Steal the ball when they try to force it to him. Whether its Lamar Jackson (6-2) or Tyler Huntley (6-1), they're not tall guys. (Josh Johnson is 6-3.) Contain and control the quarterback in the pocket like the Bengals did in week seven. The Bengals had a very disciplined pass rush and that's very critical.
And you have to be ready to take advantage of the Baltimore defense. They're going to try and blitz you. You have to make them pay. Joe Burrow did that the first game and they blew the game wide open. The Ravens are going to try and blitz the run and the quarterback. The Bengals have to win their one-on-ones. When the Ravens blitz, they love the man-to-man coverage. It's feast or famine.
This is a game the Bengals have to win. Kansas City is next. That's a 50-50 proposition. You don't want it to come down to week 18 on the road in Cleveland. Take care of business this week.
THE EDGE: The Ravens can't single cover the Bengals. They'll double cover the Bengals receivers. (Bengals running back) Joe Mixon has a big day running it. The Bengals receivers have a big day. The Ravens can't match up with them one-on-one. BENGALS, 40-27
I just don't see how the Ravens have enough manpower on the defensive side of the ball to consistently stop the Bengals. They've practiced with just 13 or 14 players on defense this week and they'll probably get some guys back off the COVID list, but they haven't done anything for a while.
They're missing so many key guys up front. (Pass rusher Justin) Madubuike won't play. (Pass rusher Justin) Houston won't play. (Defensive tackle) Calais Campbell will probably return, but he's not going to be 100 percent. He's dealing with a hamstring injury. In a perfect world they would sit him out of this one, but they don't have the luxury. They're down to three outside linebackers and three inside linebackers. They just don't have the numbers to beat a good team on the road in December. The Ravens play hard, they're resilient, they find ways to stay in games.
But you also reach a point they just don't have enough talent on the field. I think they're at that point. I think it's all setting up for the Bengals in the AFC North. They've come a long way. They've had some great injury and illness luck. They've kept their top guys on the field and they're much improved. I just think they're a better team right now. They are home and they can kind of see the finish line, where the Ravens are more limping to the finish line.
THE EDGE: I think the Ravens will keep it close and play a real competitive game and have a chance to win maybe coming into the fourth quarter. But I just think they're going to wear down. BENGALS, 27-17
I know a lot of people think the Bengals are going to win this easy with all the players the Ravens have hurt and on the COVID list. I don't see it that way. I think it's going to be a very tight game that comes down to the end. You saw Cleveland decimated. They took the Raiders to the wire. Same with Washington-Philly. Seattle –the Rams. It's the NFL. No matter if you've heard of them or not, they're professional athletes and it's a division game, so the coaches know each other as well as you can know an opponent. And, there's the bounce back effect after the Bengals rolled them in the first game. I just think it's going to be really, really tight.
The Ravens have played seven games this year decided by three points or less. The NFL record is nine. The Bengals have played six. That's all these teams do is play close games.
You look at the Baltimore secondary and what Burrow can do with all those receivers and the big question is if Wink (Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale) is going to come after Joe. He's been so good against the blitz. Is he going to put those inexperienced cornerbacks on an island or sit back in zone and play coverage? I don't think we'll see him blitz as much as he normally does, but I don't think we'll see him call it off like he did last week against the Packers. But that was Aaron Rodgers.
I still think the Bengals are going to have trouble running the ball on the Ravens. The Ravens still have the big guy (Brandon) Williams in the middle. Most of their linebackers are available. Bengals running back Joe Mixon has been practicing fully, but I don't know how bothered he'll be by the ankle he hurt late last week in Denver.
THE EDGE: The home-field advantage and being the healthier team is going to be enough to carry them. There's so much on the line. The Raves have been decimated for a while. But they took the Packers to the very end. The Browns, the Steelers. BENGALS, 24-23
First of all, the Bengals have to play with a lead. When they do that they have a much better chance against Baltimore like they've showed in all their division wins this year. And like Joe Mixon said. Take care of the football and run it. In their only division loss, the tone was set early in the game when Joe Burrow threw a pick-six against the Browns. If the Bengals can avoid game-changing plays like that, they win.
I think the Bengals are going to be able to run the ball early. They're going to try to get ahead early and their formula has been to run the ball late and that's essentially what they did against the Ravens the last time when Mixon and (Samaje) Perine had the touchdown runs after the Ja'Marr Chase catch-and-run for the TD.
THE EDGE: This Ravens secondary is so depleted I think they're going to be able to pick their spots and take advantage of it earlier in the game and then late in the game run Mixon. BENGALS, 31-20
THE BOTTOM LINE
Now is a good time to remember that we're nearly four years to the day of the regular-season finale in Baltimore when the Ravens were one snap from going to the playoffs against a Bengals team that had been eliminated for almost a month. Except the one play was that 49-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd with 44 seconds left on fourth-and-12 that knocked Baltimore out of the postseason.
Just a reminder that in this series at this point in the season, nothing is guaranteed. Even if the Ravens are expected start a third-string quarterback that joined the team ten days ago.
Besides, this game belongs to the Bengals offense. No matter who the quarterback is, the Ravens have a great enough run scheme to keep the ball long enough to force their opponent to score some points to win. Even with Josh Johnson back there and even with the Ravens cornerbacks cleaned out, you simply don't want to fall behind in any game against the Ravens. They've lost three straight with and without Jackson, but only by a combined four points because they've rushed for at least 107 yards in each outing and went for nearly 150 last week against the Packers.
It's pretty clear how the Bengals avoid the upset. Since they beat the Ravens to go to 5-2 on Oct. 24, their four losses have been centered on massive early and late turnovers. The Jets' first interception of the season with less than four minutes left in New York. The 99-yard pick-six on first series against Cleveland. They turned it over on the first two possessions against the Chargers and muffed two first-half punts against the 49ers.
But they were steel-belted last week against Denver in a one-turnover game they didn't make it to win, 15-10. In their eight wins, they've turned it over five times. In the six losses it is 16. So there it is.
Keep an eye on special teams. The Ravens come in ranked No. 1 by Football Outsiders, the Bengals No. 7. Ravens wide receiver Devin Duvernay (ankle), the NFL's leading punt returner, is doubtful. The Bengals, who had trouble catching punts, turn to practice squadder Trent Taylor for the second straight week after he caught everything in his Bengals debut last week in Denver.
Punters Sam Koch and Kevin Huber have battled for a decade trading big days and then there's this:
Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson is one shy of tying the NFL record for most 50-yard field goals in a season off his torrid 9-for-10 opening stretch. One of the men he could tie is on Sunday's other sideline in future Hall-of-Famer Justin Tucker, 6-for-6 from the 50s this season.
Another reason the Bengals don't want to get behind early no matter what. They're 7-1 when they lead at the half and 2-5 when they don't.