It's another special teams soufflé Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when Ravens head coach John Harbaugh matches wits with special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons at Paul Brown Stadium.
One of the reasons the rivalry has been basically a push since Harbaugh became head coach 13 years ago is because of these two guys. He's barely .500 against the Bengals at 14-13, but since he left the kicking world as Andy Reid's special teams guru, he's .636 against everybody else as a head coach.
Simmons, the longest-tenured teams coach in the game, has learned and leveled lessons with Harbaugh. In his 19th year with the Bengals Simmons is shooting for his eighth playoff game with his fourth different quarterback (Joe Burrow, A.J. McCarron, Andy Dalton, Carson Palmer) and fourth different kicker (Evan McPherson, Mike Nugent , Josh Brown, Shayne Graham).
So naturally Harbaugh and special teams coordinator Chris Horton have the Ravens ranked No. 1 by Football Outsiders despite nine defensive players on the COVID list Thursday and 16 players on injured reserve.
And just as naturally, Simmons has the Bengals ranked in the top ten again (seven), even though he's got a rookie kicker and his best special teams player, gunner and kick returner Brandon Wilson has been out for the year since last month.
But McPherson has been immense with nine field goals of at least 50 yards, one shy of the all-time NFL season record the great Ravens' Justin Tucker holds with two others. Plus, wide receiver Stanley Morgan, Jr., as usual, is holding things all together.
He had a front-row seat for punter Kevin Huber's best day of the year last Sunday in Denver, a 50-yard net he helped along with the other gunner, pinch-hitter Tre Flowers, the backup safety. With Wilson down and wide receiver Mike Thomas banged up and now on the COVID list as of Friday, Flowers has, as they say, stepped up.
"I like Flowers. He runs hard. He runs fast," says Morgan, whose seven teams tackles are nearly double the next nearest on the team. "He's starting to learn our style of gunner play."
Which is a good thing because the Bengals are staring at Ravens wide receiver Devin Duvernay, the NFL's leading punt returner with a hellacious 14.2-yard average with a long of 42.
Duvernay (ankle) didn't practice all week and is classified as doubtful, but the Bengals are preparing for him. And everything else.
"Their head coach is a special teams guy," Morgan said. "They're always good and we have to be ready for everything thing that they're going to try."
The only two special units Morgan isn't on are field goal and field goal block. So he'll be on the sidelines for the Young Gun (McPherson) and Old Reliable (Tucker).
"I'll make sure I watch those two," Morgan said. "I'll watch that. That should be fun."
LAMAR, HUNTLEY OUT FRIDAY: Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson again didn't practice Friday. He hasn't all week. But he could still go, of course, and in classic Harbaugh fashion, he didn't rule him out and make him questionable. And his backup, Tyler Huntley, was ill and didn't work. No surprise. Questionable. One of seven questionables. Of seven Ravens that didn't practice Friday, only one was ruled out, guard Ben Powers.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Last Sunday's hero, backup defensive end Khalid Kareem, returned to practice for the first time this week today and Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said he's still going through concussion protocol …
Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (COVID list) wasn't out there for the third straight day. But Taylor said if he tested negative Sunday, "he'd be ready to go."
Count Taylor as fans of nose tackle D.J. Reader, who didn't make Pro Bowl or alternate, and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who made fourth alternate. He says they're deserving of a trip to Las Vegas.
"(Reader) is such big part of what we do and he's such a great defensive tackle and a player and leader on this team. Guys like him and Larry I think are deserving."