At first glance, Sunday's matchup in Baltimore (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) looks like a new Netflix series with overflowing sub-plots teeming with over-the-top twists.
Start with the Bengals' Marvin Lewis in the debut of his dual role as head coach and defensive coordinator in the building where his call sheets went to the Hall of Fame. Throw in the addition to his staff of a former Ravens quarterbacks coach in Hue Jackson. Then take the potential first NFL start of Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson's Heisman Trophy (coached by former Bengals wide receivers coach James Urban) in what could be the waning days of the Ozzie Newsome-Brian Billick-John Harbaugh Era in Baltimore that gave rise to Lewis and here we go.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable envisions an AFC North slugfest you only get in one of these November Survivor games. Richard Skinner, Local 12's digital deacon, calls it a Bengals' last stand and he's the only one standing with the Bengals.
Jeff Zrebiec, the Ravens beat reporter for The Athletic who saw it all with The Baltimore Sun, says this is a last-stand game, too. But for the Ravens as we know them and he thinks the bye and home field gets them through one more week. Fletcher Page, in his rookie season chronicling the Bengals for The Cincinnati Enquirer, has seen enough to know that life without A.J. Green is rough on the road.
NBC's Peter King, who has covered the '80s Bengals and Giants, the turn-of-the-century Ravens, and the autocratic oughts of the Patriots, has seen enough to know no one knows what is going to happen Sunday. But he doesn't get a glimpse of Green and Tyler Eifert and that's enough for him to see a Baltimore victory.
Let's go around The Table, visitors and then the alphabet first, please.
You have two teams in the middle of some turmoil this week. There's Marvin making the move to DC and bringing in Hue Jackson and here it's the quarterbacks and every day it's about head coach John Harbaugh's job. From a Ravens' perspective and I wrote this (Thursday) it has kind of a last-stand feel to it for the Ravens as we know them. If rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson plays well and wins, it's impossible to take him out. If they lose, they're pretty much done at 4-6 with road games against the Chargers, Falcons and Chiefs and they're not running the table there. It goes beyond guys like Harbaugh and Flacco. It's guys like guard Marshal Yanda, cornerback Jimmy Smith, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. They're either free agents or the cap number doesn't make sense. C.J. Mosley. Michael Crabtree. Eric Weddle. If the Ravens want to keep this thing together, they have to go on a run here.
The bye week helped. They were banged up on the offensive line and at cornerback and they needed it. They had a great game plan against Cincinnati in the second game, but Andy Dalton beat them with the blitz on short, little passes and that's been the recipe to beat the Ravens defense ever since. They've been struggling with intermediate passes in the middle of the field against running backs, tight ends, slot receivers. Tavon Young is a solid slot corner, but he's 5-10 and no match for Green and that's what they took advantage of last time. Plus they've got a full complement of corners now.
If it is Jackson, and even if it is Flacco, I think they come out of the bye week with a simplified game plan running the ball. They've been too one-dimensional and the defense has been on the field too long.
THE EDGE: I say this with a pause because of how the Bengals have recently owned the series. This is a game the Ravens need to stay relevant the rest of the season. And the Bengals defense is struggling and they probably won't have A.J. Green, long a Ravens-killer. RAVENS, 24-17
I don't know what's going to happen, but Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III could be the story on Monday morning. He's a different guy this year. He's a guy that came back this year and said I want to be a total football player, I want to be coached, I'm going to do what you want me to do and he's got the perfect offensive coordinator in Marty Mornhinweg. He was able to bring out the Michael Vick version that we know. I don't know. Just a gut feeling. I don't know who is playing. But if he plays we've got a great story.
Marvin bringing back Hue is a cool hire. I know everyone is down on Hue, but I think Hue is great. He understands what it takes to win. I know that's an odd way of looking at it even though he hasn't won and I know everybody will laugh about that, but he's got a really good sense of what it takes and he knows every team in this division as well as anybody does. Why not?
Because of Baltimore's pass rush and the Bengals are a greatly disadvantaged team without A.J. Green and a full complement of tight ends, I think this is a hard one for them to win. At some point you have to try and do something different. You just do. I'm in favor of Marvin taking over the defense. I'm in favor of the non-status quo move. Especially when you're getting the living stuffing beat out of you.
THE EDGE: I'm going against the grain. I know the Bengals are 8-2 in their last 10 against the Ravens, but this is a really gigantic game for the Ravens. If you go 4-6 in the AFC it's going to be exceedingly hard to get a Wild Card. This would give them four conference losses. If you have four conference losses with the remaining tough teams on the schedule, I don't see how you make the playoffs. Baltimore is the more desperate team. RAVENS, 27-20.
Get a behind-the-scenes look as the Cincinnati Bengals travel to Baltimore before Sunday's game against the Ravens.
Anybody who says they know what is going to happen is a liar. Both teams are in desperation mode, but there are a lot of unknowns with both of them. In my head I've prepared myself for Lamar Jackson, but one day this week Robert Griffin was the only one who practiced. I did see Jackson twice in college when I covered him at Louisville when Kentucky won and at Kentucky when Louisville won. It's pretty remarkable what he did in college because it didn't take long for Bobby Petrino to get run out of there after Lamar left. He was really carrying that team. He's got a lot of tread on the tires. You talk about college running backs. Lamar got sacked something like 47 times the year he won the Heisman. It's a mid-season curve ball for the Bengals. He's thrown 12 passes this year. When they played the last time three of his six snaps were in the slot, so there's nothing to look back on to prepare. And he couldn't be more different than Joe Flacco.
Then you've got Marv's return to Baltimore to run the defense. I don't know what difference that is going to make. He's been watching it the whole time. I don't know outside the spark and all that motivational stuff, I don't know how he'll call it differently. The guys are the same. I think what makes this defense better is the schedule and maybe getting some guys backs.
THE EDGE: I know everybody says Marv or the Bengals have Baltimore's number. I don't think that will matter much. The Ravens are coming off the bye week and are at home, so I give them the edge. But I reiterate. Anybody who says they know is a liar. RAVENS, 28-24.
This is a hard one to call for a lot of reasons. Marv is the DC. What's the defense going to look like? Who's back? Who's playing? Those that are back, how much can they play? How much can linebacker Vontaze Burfict give you? How much can Darqueze Dennard give you? And we still don't know who the quarterback is going to be for the Ravens as we speak. That's a lot of factors.
I think if anybody other than Joe Flacco starts for the Ravens the Bengals have a legitimate chance to win. RGIII is on the back nine of whatever career he's had. Lamar Jackson is a kid. He'll give you some oh-my-gosh plays, but he'll also do what rookies do and I think a veteran defensive coordinator can give him problems. But if it's Flacco, it's a tight game.
The Bengals have played well in Baltimore over the last handful of years. Just having a new voice and a breath of fresh air on the defense against a non-dynamic offense gives you a fighting chance. Let's not forget who the Bengals played in those first nine games. Drew Brees. Ben Roethlisberger. Andrew Luck. Matt Ryan. Cam Newton. Flacco when he was actually playing well early. They've played some dudes. Now you're not playing against dudes. You're playing an offense that you can manage.
The biggest question is how does the Bengals offense respond. It hasn't played with great consistency. Some of it has snowballed on them. Kansas City. New Orleans. And you don't know what weapons you have there, either. They're either banged up or sick or whatever. A lot of factors that make it hard to predict.
THE EDGE: One last stand. I think it is kind of Win One For Marv. Boy, he seemed awfully giddy and confident this week. Maybe that's false bravado. Maybe that's ego. Probably a little bit of both, right? But I think he's confident he can fix this. BENGALS, 20-19
THE BOTTOM LINE
It's a good thing the Bengals have got a lot of Marv M&T Karma going on this Throw Back Sunday in Baltimore because the paper isn't as kind.
The guy they've forced to hand them some games down through the years, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, probably won't play. The guy that has made more deposits in M&T Bank Stadium than Ravens ownership while grabbing a bunch of wins from them, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, probably won't play. Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson is one of the more dynamic runners to ever win the Heisman and the Bengals (at five yards per) have never stopped the run this year. And they go into this one without their middle backer (Preston Brown) and their SAM backer (Nick Vigil) and their WILL backer, Vontaze Burfict, is questionable and hasn't played in a month.
And the paper says Lewis is 11-12 against rookie QBs that don't play for Cleveland. Will the Bengals turn Jackson into Deshaun Watson, the man that killed them with a 49-yard TD scramble in his first NFL start? Or will he be Johnny Manziel, the man the Bengals blanked in his first NFL start?
And despite all the hype blowing out of Camden Yards, the Ravens defense is still Ravenous. No. 2 overall. No. 3 vs. the pass. No. 10 vs. the run.
The Sunday paper being delivered in Bengaldom looks rough.
But all that said, this is the kind of game the Bengals win. Just when you think they've got no shot, there they are. Look closely at the paper and the Ravens run it only 3.6 yards per carry. Their defense is stout but hasn't turned it over in a month and if it's one thing this Bengals defense does it's catch it when the other team throws it at them (their next pick ties their interception total of last season) and the kid QB will do that once or twice, right?
And, the Bengals have been quietly running it better and better with Joe Mixon carrying the mail five per since he came back from the scope, a key element for any road surprise. They may not get five per shot Sunday. They may not even get four per shot with Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley back in the middle. But they can get just enough with Giovani Bernard and his 4.2 yards per carry career average taking some of the carries off of Mixon's knee. In a manageable game with no Green, a limping John Ross and one experienced tight end, Mixon and Bernard loom large. (And don't forget back-up QB Jeff Driskel's zone-read wrinkles.)
They can help them with the clock. The Bengals have a terrible time of possession crisis. It stands at 26:53, which would be the lowest in franchise history and start with the defense's 56.2 percentage on third down. But Mixon and Bernard can be a nice antidote there.
And Lewis is exactly what this defense needs right now. Stability. Confidence. Simplicity. Just get 'em lined up so they're not pointing at each other as the ball is snapped. That's how Lewis made his name. Line up and kill you with the basics, like a repetitive sledge hammer.
Lewis has offered a few hints during the week. There won't be much on his call sheet, but what's on it is what has worked during the season and this week in practice. Plus, the energy he gave off during the week that included the return of Hue Jackson as his special assistant has sparked into what feels like another Opening Day.
Does Marv Karma beat paper? This we know in Baltimore. Whether it's a Hail Mary at the regulation gun or a fourth-and-12 prayer in the final minute, lately it's been a spiritual experience in that building between these two. So Karma gets an edge. Plan on sticking around until about 4:10 p.m. because the last two minutes figure to border on eternity.