Anytime it is the Ravens (or the Steelers), it is a litmus test for the Bengals and Sunday's season finale at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) is no different when they get to measure their improving defense.
As there always seems to be in the NFL, this matchup has a link to the name on the stadium. Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, architect of some of the league's most devastating running attacks of the past decade, spent some of his summers as a youth attending Bengals president and general manager Paul Brown's training camps of the early '80s.
Roman's uncle, Jack Clary, co-wrote Brown's autobiography and offered the New Jersey pre-teen an early look at the world he never forgot.
"To be around that and meet a man like Paul Brown," Roman told Benals.com earlier this year, "my uncle opened those doors and changed my life."
After a mid-season funk that the Bengals helped put it, Roman has the NFL's top-ranked running game back in high gear. The Bengals didn't exactly handcuff the Ravens back on Oct. 11 in Baltimore. They still rushed for nearly seven yards per on 24 carries but the Bengals shut down their arch-nemesis when quarterback Lamar Jackson had just three yards on two carries. Jackson remained unbeaten against the Bengals (4-0), but not with his signature 100-yard days on the ground.
The Bengals defense has been playing a lot better than that the past two months. When they allowed 166 yards on the ground last week to the Texans' lowest-ranked run game in the league, it was a blip in a second half they've prevented teams from scoring 21 points five times. Ranked No. 22 in the league, the defense is looking for its highest ranking since 2017.
They've improved enough that middle linebacker Josh Bynes, who came over from the Ravens this offseason, would like to return.
"Guys know how I feel about here. I love it. Even though we have been coming up short, that just shows you we are close," Bynes said. "We just got to continue to build and use what we have now and knowing we are getting there. We are almost there. We just got to find those one plays, make that one play and that one stop."
This week Roman praised Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's scheme back on Oct. 11, calling it unique.
That was also the game Jackson gimped in with a sore knee after not practicing all week and he was in a stretch where he was holding on to the ball in the pocket. While Jackson is back to scrambling a bit more (he's carried it 23 times the last two weeks), Roman has tweaked it so the Ravens are averaging 233 rushing yards in their four-game winning streak that has included shred jobs against the Browns (231) and the Giants' top ten per rush defense (249).
"They've definitely added some new things here and there. G Ro is such an amazing offensive coordinator," Bynes said. "I had the pleasure of being with him last year and I know what he brings to the table. Super, super smart and knows how to get his players in the right position to make the plays they need to make. And obviously they have the players to make those plays. They definitely have turned it up these four in a row that they've won."
Instead of rotating the running backs, Roman has turned to Ohio State rookie J.K. Dobbins with 64 carries in the last five games for more than five yards per carry while making Mark Ingram a healthy scratch. With Nick Boyle, his best blocking tight end, out for the year, Roman has appeared to focus running on the perimeter rather than through the tackles. But with frequent alignments featuring an extra lineman, they can do that, too.
"Lamar is probably one of the best athletic quarterbacks in this league. And what obviously makes him even more dangerous is he can throw the ball as well," Bynes said. "It's always a challenge playing the Ravens. You see it every week watching film, watching other teams play against them"
The Bengals stopped Jackson back in October by clogging the edges on him. They blitzed about as much as they usually do (33 percent), but they got a big game out of cornerback Darius Phillips playing what amounted to one-on-one with Jackson's every move as a spy.
"Darius showed up. He's a gamer," said Bengals safety Jessie Bates III after that game. "I'm not surprised at all that he showed up well."
Where Jackson hurt them the last time was on third down, where the Ravens were 7-for-15. He found tight end Mark Andrews and wide receiver Hollywood Brown three times each to convert.
"It's just as simple as not letting him get the ball," Bates said about Andrews after the game Andrews caught a third-down touchdown. "We know where Lamar wants to go: either '15' (Brown) or '89' (Andrews). It showed up today as well. That's all he was really throwing to, was '15' or '89.' We didn't make the plays where it was at that point in time."
While the Bengals defense has played well against quarterbacks Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, and Ben Roethlisberger and stopped Deshaun Watson late, they haven't seen a high-operating offense like this one led by the reigning MVP.
"We've got our hands full," Bynes said. "We've just got to take it one play at a time and just be sound in our technique and what we're asked to do on each play."
INJURY UPDATE: Phillips won't have his fellow starting cornerback out there. William Jackson III (concussion), the best cover corner, has been ruled out. So has rookie linebacker Logan Wilson (ankle), who picked off Jackson in Baltimore.
But Phillips, who rested various ailments this week before going full in Friday's practice, is good to go. So are wide receivers Tyler Boyd (concussion) and Tee Higgins (hamstring) when they went full Friday after going limited the rest of the week.
THE GAME's THE THING: Some heady team milestones are in reach Sunday. With one catch Higgins breaks Cris Collinsworth's rookie record of 67 catches. If he can get 92 yards, he'll join Collinsworth and A.J. Green as the only Bengals rookies to get 1,000 yards. Green is one shy of tying Chad Johnson franchise record of 65 touchdowns.
Zac Taylor the head coach won't influence Zac Taylor the play-caller because of the record book.
"We're always happy when those guys can achieve those marks," Taylor said after practice. "But ultimately this is a team effort. We don't ever do anything over the course of the game to compromise our best chances to win.
"We're happy when those things organically happen for those guys because they've earned them. At the same time we go about our business as normal and find a way to win the game and do things to put ourselves in the best position. Often times it occurs with those guys making plays and good things happen for them. But we're not going to compromise how we call the game."
Higgins has a tough road for 1,000. The Ravens have allowed just three receivers to get 92 yards this season.