Game Day in the Bengals.com Media Forum and there is only one way to turn with the 9-6 Bengals heading into Sunday's regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium (4:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) needing a win over the 11-4 Ravens to make the playoffs.
Long before Boomer Esiason became a broadcasting heavyweight, he is still the last Bengals quarterback to win a playoff game. And from the CBS set Sunday, Esiason plans to pick to prevail Andy Dalton, the quarterback born the year Esiason sat in front of the bus and set the table for Cincinnati's Super Bowl run the next year, to take the Bengals back to the postseason.
"Joe Flacco struggles on the road," Esiason says of the Ravens QB, "and Marvin Lewis has had success against Baltimore. My only concern is that as a young team the Bengals get too hyped up."
Another former Bengal, cornerback Artrell Hawkins, analyst on the Bengals Radio Network, also picks the Bengals because of the noise from the sellout crowd he thinks will bother a Baltimore offense that has averaged less than 19 points per game on the road.
NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi, a former NFL general manager, likes what the Bengals are doing but he thinks they're a year away from winning a game like Sunday. And Aaron Wilson, who covers the Ravens for the Carroll County Times, agrees and thinks the Ravens passing game will do what it did last month and take advantage of the loss of cornerback Leon Hall.
You wouldn't say the Bengals were loose this past week because Lewis always makes sure to grind it, but they were certainly confident and talking about what a good week of practice they've had.
And why not? They don't have a thing to lose. A scant six months ago the Bengals were supposed to be the worst team in the NFL, Jimmy Brown in everyone's power rankings (No. 32), a laughingstock with their franchise quarterback holding them hostage, a rookie quarterback starting the opener, a new offensive coordinator, one of the league's top cornerbacks fleeing to free agency, and no offseason contact with a roster that would start on Opening Day three rookies on offense and seven different Opening Day starters from 2010 to 2011 on defense.
If Ravens coach John Harbaugh's brother had stayed at Stanford, Lewis would be Coach of the Year. The Bengals should be loose. At 9-6 and a shot to go to the playoffs, they are not only playing with house money on Sunday, they are playing with Baltimore's stakes.
Those guys are a team tighter than Mr. Potter on Christmas Eve even though the Ravens made the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Because if the Ravens lose, they somehow end up on the road for the fourth straight year.
And with the window closing on Baltimore's aging Hall of Fame corps of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs, Sunday's game seems to be as desperate, if not more, for Baltimore.
That's one thing the Bengals have going for them and not so much the Ravens: the future. Sure, if the Bengals lose they are sentenced to an offseason of listening to how they went 8-0 against losing teams and 1-7 against winning teams and 0-7 against playoff teams if Denver makes it.
But all their young stars are back and the hottest offseason topics look to be the two first-round picks, the potential of a training camp held at PBS, and which postseason awards should have been given to whom.
Of course, that so-called signature win and defining moment would be nice to get out of the way now instead of spilling into next season. The one thing about Dalton …
He may have one win against a winning team (Tennessee), but he hasn't melted in this grueling run of rugged defenses. As he heads into his 16th game, he plays his 10th game against a defense that starts Sunday in the top 10. The Bengals are 4-5 against those teams with four of the losses coming by 20 points. But Dalton has given the Bengals a shot with a 74 passer rating against top 10 teams on 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Let's go around the table, starting with the 1988 NFL MVP:
These guys are fun to watch. They're a young team that has struggled with the upper class of teams when I think at times they've been overwhelmed by youth and inexperience. But I hope Marvin goes into that room and tells them the expectation is for them to win. They should win.
You look at how poorly the Ravens have played on the road and Marvin's success against the Ravens and a lot of things point to the Bengals winning this game. It would be a major disappointment if they lose.
I know this was a rebuilding year—again—and no one expected them to do what they've done in the first 15 games. But they belong with these guys and they have to look each other in the eye and know they belong. They should have beat Houston and Houston's a better team than Baltimore except for the quarterback.
They've got a lot of things going for them. Look, Ray Lewis isn't the same player. He's playing, but he can't do much with that toe. What I'm worried about is what happened to them in Pittsburgh with the blocked field goal. They get too hyped up and too excited and you give up a blocked punt or a couple of turnovers, the thing that young teams do when they can't control their emotions. They have to take care of the ball and play disciplined.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-21. The Ravens have had woeful quarterback play on the road and the Bengals have had success against Baltimore at home. We have to go back and look what (offensive coordinator) Jay Gruden said. He was prophetic. He said Dalton was his guy all the way because he fit his system. You've got to say he was right. From afar, it looks like Andy is doing what he has to do to keep his team winning.
The Bengals have a lot of good young players and they should have another big draft. I think Dalton is a good player, but they're going to have to make sure they surround him with the complementary parts and so far they have with guys like Green and (Jermaine) Gresham. But I think they're a year away.
The key against Baltimore is you have to protect the quarterback. They're so strong up front and if they give Dalton time he should be able to get it to Green, but they're also so hard to run the ball on. I think the Bengals left tackle, (Andrew) Whitworth is a very good player and probably should have made the Pro Bowl.
The Ravens aren't a very fast team on offense. Torrey Smith has great speed but he can really run only one route. He makes his living on (the go pattern). They either run (a go) or a post and that's it. You eliminate that and you have to handle (running back) Ray Rice in the checkdowns and make sure the tight ends don't hurt you over the middle.
THE EDGE: Ravens, 24-17. A little too much experience at some key positions.
The key is the Bengals offense not turning it over. That's been the big thing in their losses and Andy could have had three picks last week. Two floated on him and got dropped and one got called back. He can't do that Sunday. (Ravens safety) Ed Reed won't drop them.
Cedric Benson showed last time he can get some yards in the red zone against them and that's going to be another key. You figure the Ravens are going to take away Green and Gresham in the red zone and with Caldwell not playing they need some of those other receivers to step up, like (Andrew) Hawkins or (Ryan) Whalen. They had Whalen a couple of times last week.
If they get the lead they can't go ultraconservative like they have the last couple of weeks. They have to keep trying to go deep to A.J. I like his matchup with Jimmy Smith.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 20-17. The noise is going to be deafening. I think they're going to have a hard time hearing and Flacco hasn't played well on the road. I think the defense comes up with one and they can score just enough.
The big thing in this one is how are the Ravens going to cover Green? You guess they would bracket him with Reed over the top. When they doubled Antonio Gates in San Diego, Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd hurt them. They got some good news with Cary Williams coming back from a concussion, so they're going to have all their corners. Their third corner, Chris Carr, talked this week about how he thinks the Bengals are going to miss Caldwell. He's made some plays against them going back to '09 when his late catch won the game.
Torrey Smith has turned into their go-to guy at wide receiver and his breakout game was against the Bengals. He's had some drops, his hands aren't consistent yet, but he can go deep as the Bengals know.
The Ravens defensive line respects the Bengals. They've been talking up Whitworth and usually they don't talk about the offensive linemen unless they think they're good. Jarret Johnson was saying how he plays hard but is a good sport. Terrell Suggs is having a great year. He's had a lot of his 13 sacks against bad teams, but he's still a great pass rusher.
Jimmy Smith, their rookie corner, has showed a lot of talent. He'll take some risks. He's been beaten on double moves and Caldwell got past him in the last game.
They've had issues on special teams. It's the first time since 2002 they've allowed three returns for touchdowns and Josh Cribbs just got them last week for a punt return for a touchdown against Cleveland. They gave up an 82-yard punt return to Patrick Peterson against Arizona and James McKnight of the Jets took a kick 107 yards.
They're pretty healthy for this point in the season. I think there's a chance that their Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda plays even though he didn't practice (until Friday). They're going to make a call on their kicker, Bill Cundiff, Saturday and I think the fact that they didn't make a decision Friday on him is good for Shayne Graham. I think they might go with Graham because Cundiff has had a tough month. All nine of his field-goal misses have come on the road.
THE EDGE: Ravens, 31-28. I think the Ravens are going to dial it up and throw it more. The Bengals really miss cornerback Leon Hall. Flacco might have been joking this week when he talked about the Ravens getting too conservative in the second half. But they fell apart in the fourth quarter last week and only had 12 yards when they didn't throw it all that much. I think they'll try to change that.
THE BOTTOM LINE:The pundits were so off on their preseason predictions because they failed to calculate the return of the Bengals core on defense under the highly-regarded Mike Zimmer as well as the fact special teams coach Darrin Simmons has an excellent track record and two solid specialists in kicker Mike Nugent and punter Kevin Huber.
Those two factors alone put the Bengals ahead of poor teams with new head coaches, such as Carolina and Cleveland and at least on an even footing with teams like Buffalo, Kansas City and Jacksonville. Given their schedule against poor defenses at the beginning of the season, the Bengals certainly weren't worse than those teams on paper and the question should not have been if they were going to get Lucky as the worst team in football, but would Dalton pick it up soon enough to get to six or seven wins? Now those two standbys, defense and special teams, has to get them through the biggest game of the year.
Zimmer has a knack at making life miserable for Flacco and has forced him into 10 interceptions in six games. Zimmer may not have Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph at cornerback, but he does have left end Carlos Dunlap and tackle Geno Atkins rushing Flacco in the sold-out din. In the last two games at PBS, the Ravens have produced two touchdowns.
And the Ravens are uncharacteristically hurting on special teams. They've given up three return TDs (two punts and a kick), their top kick returner is out for the year, and kicker Billy Cundiff is nursing a calf injury as well as nine missed field goals on the road. Even if Cundiff doesn't kick and Shayne Graham does, that has to be to Cincinnati's advantage because he's not kicking off well and he has to be carrying in the ghosts of 2006 and 2009.
Meanwhile, Nugent hopes to keep his Christmas Eve blip of two misses in his near-90 percent season just that and punt returners Brandon Tate and Adam Jones are taking aim at a Ravens cover team that is 24th on punts and has allowed TDs to two guys the Bengals stopped in Cribbs and Peterson.
So it is left to an offense that didn't have Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green last month in Baltimore but got 152 yards from wide receiver Jerome Simpson and a 49-yard touchdown catch from wide receiver Andre Caldwell. Caldwell is out, but the Bengals did damage against a team pretty competent against the long ball.
According to Elias the Ravens are tied for sixth in allowing the fewest pass pays of 20 yards (42), tied for 10th on allowing more than 30 yards (17), and tied for 12th allowing more than 40 (8). But Green leads the league with 11 catches of at least 35.
What it comes down to is the Bengals need another mistake-free PBS game from Dalton. At home he's thrown only eight touchdowns in seven games, but he's also thrown only six interceptions and not one in his last three PBS games. A ratio like that on Sunday should get the Bengals there.