The Bengals hope to end this upside down year by starting 2021 right side up Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals are looking for their first three-game winning streak to finish a season in eight years against a Ravens team that needs it to go to the playoffs.
In the past two weeks the Bengals have turned around slew of streaks and they'd love to end another one as reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson comes to town handing off a 4-0 record in this series. The Bengals.com Media Roundtable salutes his good work in place of Joe Burrow, but doesn't see Bengals quarterback Brandon Allen being able to outscore his opposite number.
Alex Marvez, the sonorous sage of Sirius NFL Radio, thinks what the Bengals did on a Monday night to the Steelers is a good sign, but doesn't see it translating to a Sunday afternoon against the Ravens. Jeff Zrebiec, the Ravens' beat reporter for The Athletic, has covered enough of these late-season games in the series to know it's going to be tight and senses the Ravens running game wears down the Bengals by the end of it.
Locally, Richard Skinner, digital sports columnist for Cincinnati's Local 12, thinks the game can be an encouraging barometer for where the Bengals stand but sees Jackson standing head-and-shoulders over them Sunday. Paul Dehner, Jr., The Athletic's Bengals archivist, believes back-to-back conquests of Pittsburgh and Baltimore would be massive but doesn't see a matching huge turnover to swing it on Sunday.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first.
You have to love the way the Bengals responded on Monday Night Football and then followed it up against Houston. Those were statement-type games to me. The Bengals didn't get fat and happy beating Pittsburgh and I know Houston has its issues but a lot of teams have issues. And they didn't lose. If you're going to build a culture of winning, you need to win games. That's what makes it so important for Cincinnati. I don't think it's going to be a walkover by any means for Baltimore with the confidence the Bengals are building.
Baltimore is getting hot in the passing game and while the good news is that Cincinnati can score points, I don't think they can score enough to keep up with the Ravens.
THE EDGE: At this time next year that game might be a lot closer if not a Bengals win if they make some improvements on defense and some players get back healthy. But you have to like what they've done in December and that's a strong thing for this team. RAVENS, 30-20
I don't think this will be a blowout. I know the Ravens have blown out four straight teams and you applaud them for handling their business and taking care of the inferior teams and they're playing well. The Ravens offense is playing really well. This is the offense we watched last year. Limiting turnovers, running the heck out of the ball and not making too many mistakes.
The Bengals have nothing to lose. They're plenty motivated. They've showed that. They're playing better. There's no doubt about that. I think on the offensive side of the ball they'll be able to put up some points and make some plays with their receivers. The Ravens secondary has struggled a little bit. Cornerback Marcus Peters has been out, he'll play Sunday but cornerback Jimmy Smith probably won't play. They've been kind of banged up there. I think there are some plays to be made in the Ravens secondary, but I just don't think Brandon Allen will be able to make enough of them given how well the Ravens offense is playing.
And the Ravens running game is totally different. Running back J.K. Dobbins had only one carry in that first Bengals game and now he's the main back. I thought the Bengals had a really nice game plan defensively in that first game and I imagine they'll switch it up according to what they're doing now. The Giants have a pretty good run defense and last week the Ravens put 249 yards on them and it could have been worse. I have a hard time believing the Bengals are going to be able to consistently get stops on them.
THE EDGE: It could be a one-score game, but maybe Allen makes a mistake in the second half and the Ravens take over in the fourth quarter. RAVENS, 27-17
Jay Morrison, my colleague at The Athletic, has got that great "Send 'Em Home Happy Stat." It's incredible. Since 1993 when they've had a losing record, the Bengals are 17-1 in their last home games of the year. And 12 straight.
I know we joke about the lack of momentum from one season to another when you look at history, but if you actually win two of the last three and intimidate Pittsburgh and Baltimore with everything on the line, that's real. I think that has real carryover. Because that's in the division, learning how to do it with the nucleus no matter how much you churn the roster. I think it's massive in that regard even though they would lose spots in the draft.
I hate to beat the drum of the obvious, but they're not equipped to win this one without winning the turnover battle. They just don't have the firepower. They're going to have to either draw even and it's a turnover that's more impactful than one on the other side, or they've got to outright win it. I think there's a false confidence coming from the first game stopping the run against them because Lamar really wasn't himself at that point and he has that MVP roll going right now.
It's a real test of whether the defense can stop Lamar. Before Sam Hubbard's play last week, it looked like the dreadful defense of the middle of the season that was a liability. It's a good test for them against a good quarterback after playing a string of backups and bottom half of the league offenses.
THE EDGE: Lamar is on a roll and I don't think the Bengals are going to have a dominant turnover day, but I think they'll hang with them. The power of the "Send 'Em Home Happy," stat lives. RAVENS, 24-17
I think it's a great litmus test to see where they are. You caught Pittsburgh in a down time on a wild night with a wild game plan, getting the turnovers and made it work. You caught a Houston team that's not very good. Nobody should apologize for winning in the NFL. But this is the real litmus test. This is against a team playing for something and playing really well.
Lamar was hurt last time, which is why he didn't run it very well. He was playing on one leg, so his part of the run game was pretty much null and void. He's back doing things, throwing the ball well. It's a great litmus test to see where you are going into the offseason. There are holes. You're missing multiple key parts. But are you closer than you were three, four, five weeks ago? I think you can turn this around quickly.
I don't know if I believe in momentum into the next season. I've seen this script play out before. But look what Miami did last year and look where they are this year. And it can happen really quickly. In this league, you're never that far away if you've got the quarterback and enough other parts and you've got a couple of offseasons to fix things that need fixing. You really aren't that far away. This one tells me, are you still light years away or are you closing the gap and that doesn't mean you have to win this game. It just can't be as ugly as it was last time.
THE EDGE: I think the Bengals play them well. I think they've got a little confidence. That goes a long way. The fact you've won some games and put some points on the board and maybe if you have some breaks go your way. They've got the turnovers they hadn't been getting. It's contagious. I think they hang around, but Baltimore has something to play for and they're not limping in here. They've got the main guy healthy and he's never lost to them. RAVENS, 27-21
THE BOTTOM LINE
The last time the Bengals beat the Steelers and Ravens at home in the same season is when they went unbeaten at The Paul in 2013 while a win on Sunday would give them four wins at home for the first time in four years and give Zac Taylor a win over each of his AFC North foes.
Significant. It would also be the first time since 2012 they ended a year with three straight wins, a stretch that that gave them a play-off berth and that is what they want to deny the Ravens. And with the Bengals seeking to get back there sooner rather than later, this is just the kind of game their defense needs to be salty.
It's a unit that has played well, but their last seven games have come against offenses that went into the final week of the season rated 30, 31, 23, 12, 24 and 17. The Ravens are No. 1 running the ball and offer the Bengals a top-ranked challenge.
But then, they just found out Saturday that because of COVID their best defensive tackle, Mike Daniels, won't play. Meaning their three best defensive tackles won't play against the NFL's No. 1 rush defense. And their two best cornerbacks (William Jackson III and Trae Waynes) and their nickel linebacker (Logan Wilson) won't play, either, against the NFL MVP. So what kind of barometer that gives you is unclear, except maybe next year's depth.
But Taylor gets another chance to show his offense has evolved against another ravenous AFC North pass rush. He doesn't have his No. 1 quarterback, running back or left tackle and yet those injuries have shown why he covets a scheme to be interchangeable enough to score using different styles.
He did it against Pittsburgh, a team that led the NFL in sacks and quarterback hits, and now he'll adjust it for a Ravens defense that peppered his No. 1 quarterback with seven sacks and 15 hits nearly three months ago. That day Bengals running back Joe Mixon ran it 24 times for 59 yards against a run defense now ranked ninth. Last week against the NFL's No. 31 run defense, running backs Giovani Bernard and Samaje Perine combined for 29 carries for 160 yards. You've got to figure somewhere in there would be just right. The run game seems to be operating at a higher level in the last three weeks with a left to right interior of Xavier Su'a-Filo, Trey Hopkins and Quinton Spain.
But Bengals-Ravens means you have to talk special teams. Always when Darrin Simmons is the Bengals special teams coordinator and John Harbaugh is the Ravens head coach. Both have top ten kick and punt returners. Austin Seibert, who has kicked the last three games, goes against Ravens Hall-of-Famer Justin Tucker in his 21st NFL game. Seibert has 30 career field goals and Tucker has hit 42 from 50 yards and beyond.
According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens are ranked second and the Bengals ninth in the kicking game. On Monday, no doubt, they'll be talking about offense and defense as they discuss the Bengals future. But, as usual, special teams could very well carry Sunday.