The Bengals hope rookie quarterback Ryan Finley stays Freezer Bowl glacial while the Ravens are banking on quarterback Lamar Jackson remaining scalding MVP hot to the touch when the two teams open another window into their AFC North rivalry Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) as Paul Brown Stadium turns into Finley Market.
After spending the week huddled in clusters seeking medial bulletins on wide receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals.com Media Roundtable finally broke away to wonder how the cool, cerebral Finley can keep Jackson's NFL-leading scorers off the field in his first NFL start.
Jeff Zrebiec, who covers the Ravens for The Athletic, and Tom Pelissero, who roams the league for NFL Network, are used to tight, close North Division battles. Zrebiec, who also covered the John Harbaugh Era for The Baltimore Sun, and Pelissero, who broke in covering the Packers and Vikings, both see a gritty game much like last month's 23-17 Ravens' win in Baltimore.
John Fay of The Cincinnati Enquirer and Laurel Pfahler of The Dayton Daily News agree that Finley's assignment in his first start is one of the toughest tasks in recent Bengals history.
Let's go around The Table. As always, ladies and visitors first. So Fayman hits cleanup befitting his strength.
Baltimore just beat the Patriots, so I don't really see a let down from them. They have to be feeling pretty good about themselves, which has to make it even tougher for the Bengals. It's a tough game for Finley, anyway, and then throw in that he's not going to have A.J. Green. The rookie quarterback is going to need all the weapons he can have available. The Bengals have had so many struggles stopping the run, you don't imagine that going any better against Lamar Jackson.
THE EDGE: The Ravens' running game against the Bengals defense is just a tough matchup. It's a game where the Bengals could get running back Joe Mixon going to help the rookie quarterback. RAVENS, 30-17
You look at some the factors that could lead to an upset. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is 3-8 in Cincinnati. They've never played well there. But this is a different team and the Bengals are a different team. It's always an emotional, physical and taxing game when you play the Patriots. It sounds like teams have struggled a lot in the week after playing New England this year.
But the Ravens should win just because I don't know if the Bengals can consistently stop Lamar Jackson. I think they'll have a better plan then they did last month. I guess athleticism at linebacker and other spots have been an issue in Cincinnati, so maybe they don't have the greatest personnel to stop him.
I just think they're a little better prepared for him. The Ravens special teams isn't in a great place. The Bengals obviously have one of the best units in the league. I think there are some factors there that could make this close. Closer than people think.
I don't know what to expect from Finley. The Ravens defense historically tees off on rookie quarterbacks, but this isn't the same Ravens defense. They've become kind of a bend-but-don't-break group. I think the Bengals will get a little bit of a jolt with Finley. There's always an excitement with a new guy playing at quarterback. But can he sustain if for four quarters? The Ravens often have five DBs on the field. They're going to give him things he hasn't seen before. They can disguise in the back end. They've got speed back there. They can match up and get speed on the field. He'll have some success. It isn't a shut-down defense. But I don't see the Bengals consistently stopping the Ravens. When they need a drive, they'll get it.
THE EDGE: The Ravens have such long drives they don't get very many big plays in the passing game at all. How they're playing doesn't really lend itself to blowing teams out completely. Maybe I've seen too many Ravens-Bengals games, but last game the Ravens dominated after the opening kickoff and you look up and it's only six points. I think it's going to be more competitive than people think. I wouldn't be surprised if it's a one-score game. RAVENS, 27-17
If you look at the points you can argue the Bengals did a better job against the Ravens than a lot of other teams against the Ravens offense. Jackson also ran for more yards against them, 152, than anybody. The Ravens, along with Jackson, have really improved a lot the past few weeks. It's going to be fascinating with the extra week to prepare what Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and his staff cook up here at a time when they still have injuries, especially in the secondary. How do they come out and defend him? That's where this game turns.
I remember talking to scouts about Finley before the draft and there were a lot of things that people liked about him. In terms of how he threw the ball, how smart he was, the offense he was coming out of at North Carolina State had a lot of pro-style concepts. The questions were he's a tall guy with a lean frame, how does that hold up?
He was impressive in the preseason. I know that when I talked to scouts. Everybody thought he performed really well. You would think just his demeanor and how cool he is, that may benefit him here.
THE EDGE: I'm forbidden from picking scores. The Ravens certainly have to be the favorite coming in, but I think it's going to be more competitive than a lot of people realize. We're talking Wednesday, but the Bengals appear to be healthier than they have been at any point this season. They still do have some weapons in running back Joe Mixon, wide receiver Tyler Boyd, tight end Tyler Eifert. And defensively, they didn't shut them down the last time, but they at least kept that game competitive and held them to 23 points. I think it's going to be a good game. RAVENS.
Lamar Jackson just killed them the last time, so obviously they have to do better than that. He's rushed for 35 first downs. That's almost as many as anybody in the NFL. He doesn't rush that often, but he's just a dynamic guy. A lot depends on how they stop him from running all over the place.
On the other side we'll see whatever Ryan Finley can do. It's a tough, tough deal anytime you're making your first start, but when it's against a good defense it's even tougher. It will be interesting to see. If you're 0-8, fans are looking for something different. I don't blame Andy Dalton at all for where they are. But maybe at this point it is time to look at the kid and see the future. Flip it around. As important as it is for them stop Jackson, Sunday comes down to how well Finley plays.
It would be hard to pick the Bengals in this one. Especially after I watched most of the game the other night when the Ravens beat the Patriots. Baltimore just looked really good. They have the good defense and Jackson is playing at a very high level.
THE EDGE: The Bengals have seen Jackson once. I think they can contain him a little better. They'll have trouble scoring in Finley's first start against a good defense. They have to get some kind of a running game going or it's going to be tough for him to do anything. RAVENS, 21-7
THE BOTTOM LINE
On Baltimore radio, they're talking about how Ravens back-up quarterback Robert Griffin III is going to be in the game late in the third quarter, which makes you wonder what game they were watching last month.
It also makes you wonder how no one probably gave Bengals rookie quarterback Boomer Esiason a shot against CFL great and future Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Warren Moon in his first start 35 years ago against the Oilers. Who could foresee that a rookie QB would give head coach Sam Wyche his first win and wouldn't it be eerie if Ryan Finley did the same thing for Zac Taylor 35 years later?
Of course, Esiason had lot of help in that 13-3 win at Riverfront Stadium because he didn't exactly light it up with two picks, no TDs and 159 yards passing. But his defense held Earl Campbell to 47 yards rushing while sacking Moon four times and running backs Larry Kinnebrew, Stanford Jennings and Charles Alexander split 34 carries to rush for 171 yards.
No question, it's a different sport and Lamar Jackson is out of this world unique. But taking some elements of that blueprint is going to help Bengals rookie quarterback Ryan Finley in his first NFL start and it all begins with stopping Jackson.
Much like Ravens head coach John Harbaugh would growl about not being able to defend A.J. Green, Jackson has lit two different Bengals defenses (one coached by Marvin Lewis for 119 yards rushing, one by Lou Anarumo for 152 yards), but Lou gets another shot 28 days later. This time he'll have two key guys he didn't have in Baltimore and they're big because left end Carlos Dunlap gives them a towering presence on an edge Jackson devoured last time and slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard is his best tackler. Period.
And, people can gripe about Jackson's three knees at the end of the last game and that he really had 155 yards. But there was his 29-yard scramble at the end of the first half that the Bengals gladly gave him instead of facing a Justin Tucker bomb. Those 23 points they allowed? No one has given Baltimore fewer in a season the Ravens average an NFL-best 31.4 points per game.
All that said, the Bengals have yet to stop the run. The two times they've played Jackson, they've allowed two of the biggest nine rushing games in their history. And it's all about standing up to the Ravens physically. Up front, Baltimore has a Hall of Fame guard, an athletic left tackle, a township in a massive right tackle, a defensive tackle playing fullback and three factory-approved tight ends.
Like Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron before him, Finley comes in as a battle-tested college guy that won't get blown up by the moment. But, look, no matter how much the game has changed, every young quarterback needs help from his running back like Esiason did on Oct. 7, 1984. If Finley is going to win, running back Joe Mixon has to carry 20 times for the first time this season and 30 for the first time in his career would be more like it on a day the Bengals have to short-circuit an offense keeping the ball an NFL-best average of 35:23 per game. (And Giovani Bernard's first double-digit carry game in more than a year would be great, too.)
It's going to be interesting to see how Taylor responds calling plays for a rookie. There's a sense in Baltimore that the Ravens are a better defense the more defensive backs they have on the field because guys like corners Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and safety Earl Thomas III are their best players. Last month Bengals wide receiver Auden Tate targeted nickel back Maurice Canady on five catches for 91 yards, but Canady doesn't figure to be on the field since Smith is back from an MCL sprain and Peters is playing his first game against the Bengals.
One edge the Bengals have is in special teams. They outplayed them last month and they've been a bright spot. The Ravens have a great kicker in Tucker and a great innovator in punter Sam Koch. But they've struggled covering kicks (they gave up Brandon Wilson's 92-yard TD on last month's opening kickoff) as well as returning them (they're ranked 28th) and three of their core players are injured while a fourth, University of Cincinnati's Chris Moore, may not play.
Even if the Bengals can get all their factors lined up, the thing probably comes down to one category. Finley's turnovers. If they allow him to play cleanly, they've got a shot.