Showdown in the North country

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A big return like Adam Jones had against the Ravens last month would go a long way Sunday.

The Bengals.com Media Roundtable has gone Green for Sunday's AFC North game for first place (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium.

With no one expecting three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green to play with his nagging big toe injury, The Table unanimously projects the Ravens to be the first team to win at PBS since the Cowboys on Dec. 9, 2012.

Richard Skinner, The Cincinnati Enquirer's dual print and video threat, goes as far to give two predictions. He's got the Bengals winning a tight one with Green and losing handily if he's not out there because a defense can sit on the running game like the Colts did in their shutout of Cincinnati last week.

Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun has been covering a hot team on both sides of the ball and while the Bengals are searching for damage downfield, the Ravens are consistently getting long catches from the firm of Smith (Steve Sr.) and Smith (Torrey) the past few weeks.

Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus.com believes the Ravens are playing better than the Bengals in both trenches and doesn't think a Green-less offense has enough juice to fend off one of the NFL's best defenses.

ESPN's Chris Mortensen, who has been covering the NFL from Namath to Manning and is the only sports writer to win the prestigious George Polk Award for reporting in the last 62 years, doesn't need an investigation to know the Bengals are banged up. He says they'll be in the playoff race all the way, but Sunday's matchup comes at the wrong time for them with the Ravens so healthy and hot.

 Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors first. 

WILSON

The Ravens are playing better this time around. They've figured out what they are. That first game they were too pass happy and they didn't play very well. They're more balanced. They understand they shouldn't be airing it out all the time. There's a lot of short, intermediate stuff. They take a couple of deep shots a game. And they've been effective with the shots they take, either with pass interference penalties or some touchdowns and long receptions lately to wide receivers Torrey Smith and Steve Smith Sr.  Torrey's starting to snap out of the funk he was in earlier in the season.

Running back Justin Forsett has been really good. He's the definition of journeyman, but he's a quick, elusive, small, tough back who catches the ball well out of the backfield. They get their power running from Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro in short yardage.

Tight end Owen Daniels had been helping them but he's had arthroscopic knee surgery and is out and they'll be going with a rookie there in Crockett Gillmore. He had 43 snaps last week against Atlanta with one catch on the only throw to him. He's not the receiver Daniels is.

With Daniels out they'll probably have wide receiver Marlon Brown up. He wasn't up last game. He's about 6-5 and 215, a red-zone target. 

The left guard, Kelechi Osemele, and the left tackle, Eugene Monroe, are back after missing some games. They'll have their vets back for this game and sit down their rookies on the left side.

Their defense has been playing well. They bring a lot of pressure. They've given up some yards because they've given up some big plays, but a lot of the yards they have given up have come when they're in a prevent defense in blow-out games. They play great scoring defense. They're first in that, first in red zone defense. They're stout and the pass rush has really picked up with the three outside backers, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Pernell McPhee. They combined for five sacks in the last game. The Ravens have 10 sacks and 24 quarterback hits in the last two games. They're about as good as the Bengals offensive line. They get to the quarterback some and they ought to get to the quarterback a little bit against them.

THE EDGE: Ravens, 23-20. A late field goal by Justin Tucker. They have the better kicker. I think they'll be able to run the ball with (middle linebacker Rey) Maualuga out of the lineup and (WILL backer Vontaze) Burfict prone to head or neck injuries. I think they can get downhill and actually run the ball unlike the first game. I don't think they'll be throwing 62 passes.

That's a good idea. They should pound the ball. Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins has (seven) tackles and isn't back from his ACL surgery. The Ravens have their two veteran offensive linemen back, so they won't be as right-handed as they have been the last couple of weeks. That rookie left tackle had three holding penalties and I don't expect that from Monroe.

SKINNER

If A.J. Green plays like we saw the first game of the year, this offense stands a chance. If he doesn't play, it's going to be a hard time. It's going to be just like the Colts game. They're going to have a hard time making plays.

You can get away with that against Carolina. You saw last week Green Bay torched Carolina's defense the week after the Bengals torched them. That's an indictment on them. You look at what Baltimore's defense can do, especially how they've put pressure on quarterbacks since that Bengals game. They've got it rolling pretty good.

 If Green doesn't play, they could still pull it off. But you're going to have to find a way to make a big play from somebody you're not thinking of at the time. You need tight end Jermaine Gresham to turn a five-yard catch into a 25-yard catch. You need wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher to turn a six-yard slant into a 50-yard gain. You'll have a hard time driving the ball against them.

You look back at that first game, if you don't have A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert….remember how dynamic Eifert was in that first quarter against the Ravens before he got hurt? The one touchdown they got the whole game was throwing the ball up to No. 18 and 18 went and made a heck of a play.

On defense, the Bengals can't let Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco stand back there. You've got to get him to move. It's like cornerback Adam Jones said this week. You have to try to get him off his point and flush him out a little bit.

The other part of it is we didn't really see Baltimore run the ball effectively until the second half of that game and since then they've kept it going. We know the Bengals have had a hard time stopping the run. I think you have to find a way to win first down. Whatever it takes. Run blitzing constantly, putting a lot of guys in the box, you better win first down and put them in tough down and distances.

When you talk about your struggles offensively, you do have a guy that can make a play in the kicking game and Adam Jones can make a play. This is a game where if he can break one and set you up with another…if you can get six to 10 points out of his returns, that would be a huge advantage.

I think it is a crossroads game even though the next two at home against Jacksonville and Cleveland are extremely winnable. But at 5-3-1 staring down the barrel of five road games in the last seven and Pittsburgh and Denver coming here, you've put yourself in a real tough spot. I thought this team had to be 6-3 at worst and if you lose this game the best you're going to be is 5-3-1. Even if you went 3-4 in those last seven, you would have probably done something really good and that only gets you to 8-7-1 and that's probably not good enough to make the playoffs.

THE EDGE: With A.J I think the Bengals win, 23-20. Without A.J., Ravens, 23-13. I say A.J, gives it a go and they find a way to win. Even if he's out there on a limited basis, they find a way.

MORTENSEN

If I could predict what happens to the Bengals every week, I could make a lot of money. They always play the Ravens well. They got that game out of the way in the opener when they were healthy. Now the Ravens are kind of emerging as the team to beat in the division.

When you look at matchups, you always look at Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth and who is coming off that edge. The interior with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is still a force. The Ravens secondary is playing at a higher   level than it had been before. For the Bengals offense, is running back Giovani Bernard (ribs) healthy?

I was talking to another team about this today. We truly do over react on a week-to-week basis.  We over react when it's really great and when it's really bad. On Monday, A.J. Green runs and everybody gets excited and then all of a sudden you hear by Tuesday and Wednesday the toe didn't react very well. That's a big blow.

 Tell me how that Bengals defense is going to hold up. Everybody knows a Gary Kubiak offense is going to run the ball.  They have to be able to solve that. It's a different set of personnel, but it's still problematic. Last week wide receiver Torrey Smith finally broke out. The other receiver, Steve Smith Sr., is a stud. He really is.

THE EDGE: Ravens, 27-17. When I look at it, it just doesn't feel like the Bengals have a great shot at this one.  That's what it feels like going in, but there are surprises every week. Look at Cleveland. They were going to contend for a playoff spot and then they get beat by Jacksonville.

All of a sudden I feel like the Bengals have to go through a stretch where they have to weather the storm, so to speak.  That's a cliché, right? I think the Bengals are going to be in it all the way. But right now at this point, the Ravens are healthier than the Bengals and they're playing better. They're really emerging.

MONSON

The first thing is going to be if the Ravens have that left side of the offensive line. The rookie left tackle had been a problem for them, but we'll see how Monroe plays coming off injury.

The Ravens have been abler to generate yards on the ground even with a guy like Justin Forsett. He's a pretty good running back, but he's not a guy people think of as a workhorse or as a guy that's really going to punish your defense. But that offensive line has really been opening up some holes.

The Bengals haven't been getting it done from their side… Geno Atkins coming back from injury is not the same Geno Atkins. He's kind of working his way back. Generally up front they've been struggling. I don't think any of the linebackers are really playing well. I think you have to give the edge to Baltimore there. The key is going to be to test the left side of that line. Even if they're playing, who knows if they're healthy.

The Ravens defense is a really good unit. It's probably one of the better units in the NFL at the moment.  They've got pass rushers from a lot of different places. They've got Suggs, obviously one of the best. Dumervil is playing fantastic. Pernell McPhee off the edge has been a revelation. He was a nose tackle. He was a sub package guy, a rush interior guy. But they've put him at the stand-up outside linebacker spot. He's lost a lot of weight and he's quicker, but he's also maintained his strength from being inside. He's been giving tackles and tight ends real problems.

I think Whitworth is a quality player. He'll keep most guys quiet. Maybe a couple of plays here and there someone will get him, but he'll hold up his end. Right tackle Andre Smith is going to have his hands full with McPhee and Dumervil.

THE EDGE: Ravens, 31-16. I think the Ravens get revenge. They're healthier at the moment. They're too good, they're rolling. Cincinnati is hurting, there's still too many guys missing. Even if they get a couple of guys back they're not firing on all cylinders. Green is a big loss. It's difficult to replace that kind of thing.

THE BOTTOM LINE

They don't call it a Crossroads Game for nothing.

Sunday's winner is going be tough to catch in the season's second half.  The 4-2-1 Bengals will have the division tiebreaker on the 5-3 Ravens. Or, the 6-2 Ravens will have double the wins of the 3-3-1 of the Bengals, a team that hasn't been at .500 in more than a year and hasn't been through four games without a win in two years. 

And the Ravens come in here looking as big and as bad as ever.

Ray Lewis? Linebacker C.J. Mosley shows that General Manager Ozzie Newsome still has the first-round touch and his partner inside, Daryl Smith, shows what one-year experiments can turn in to. And the pass rushers are as explosive as they've ever been. Since the Bengals kept quarterback Andy Dalton free of Ravens in the opener, they've racked up 15 sacks, 10 of them in the last two games when they hit the quarterback 24 times.

This is how the Bengals were built. To mimic in the trenches the Super Bowl champion Ravens of 2012 and the Super Bowl champion Steelers of take your pick. Dominant running the ball and stopping the run.

But while the Bengals are giving up 4.9 yards per rush and generating just 3.6 without running back Giovani Bernard's 89-yard TD run, it is Ravens running back Justin Forsett who leads the NFL  in yards per while the Ravens  allow just 3.7 yards per rush. Those are the numbers that have won and lost the AFC North.

The Bengals defense has to make its stand against the run Sunday. Pro Bowlers Atkins and Burfict have to regain their form if the Bengals are going to slow down the Ravens' swift zone-blocking running scheme. There were signs in the second half of the opener they were still grappling with the plays that Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak used to knock them out of the 2011 and 2012 playoffs as the Texans head coach.

If Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco can get into play-action situations, it's a long day. But he's struggled at PBS against this defense and this scheme with a career line of five TDs and nine picks.

The Bengals have more questions than answers as they line up. One of their best run stoppers, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, apparently had a setback this week as he comes back from a Sept. 14 knee injury. After going full Wednesday and Thursday, he was limited Friday and listed as questionable.

Burfict went full all week after hurting his neck late in the first quarter last Sunday, but he's only finished one of the four games he's played. Emmanuel Lamur returns at SAM backer after hurting his shoulder against Carolina. But these are the same cast of players that authored the win in Baltimore just a scant 50 days ago and most of them were here when they stifled the Ravens in last year's final game of the regular season on 47 yards rushing and 222 total.

It's a huge challenge for the offense. The only touchdown the Bengals scored in the opener came courtesy of a Dalton-Green 77-yard bomb and that came when the Ravens secondary limped in from training camp.

Even if Green plays a minimal number of snaps to keep them off-balanced, it's a different look. Green scorched cornerback Chykie Brown, but this isn't the September secondary. Brown was inactive last week and their best cover corner, Lardarius Webb, is back from the injury that kept him out of the opener. Plus, Jimmy Smith is playing at a high enough level that he's ranked 10th in ProFootballFocus.com's list of corners.    

So they have to run it, right, if Green is out, so they can loosen it up Mohamed Sanu and his corps of wide receivers? The Bengals running game is supposed to be a lot further along than this. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is going to insist it gets going Sunday.

Running the ball against Baltimore is never pretty, but like any necessity of life, it has to be done because it beats the alternative. The Ravens can't have free run of Dalton on third-and-long or it's a quick dismissal. So we offer 6-1, 230-pound rookie running back Jeremy Hill. Bernard is banged up and Hill is a chain-mover. If there's ever a day to move the chains, this is it. The Bengals defense is battered and exhausted after being on the field for 240 snaps the last three weeks and the Ravens pass rushers are already twitching if the Bengals don't/can't run it.

And as long as the Bengals don't turn it over, they can win a bone-on-bone special teams game against Baltimore because of their kicking game. Cincinnati and Baltimore are 1-2 when it comes to a compilation of the league's 10 major special teams categories and both possess game-breakers that can change such tight games.

Adam Jones leads the NFL in punt returns and Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones is fourth in kick returns. Ravens kicker Justin Tucker is radar from 50 yards, but Bengals punter Kevin Huber is third in NFL net yards and among the league leaders in pinning teams inside the 20.

There may be no Greening of Bengaldom Sunday. But a shade of black and blue against the men of purple may be just enough.

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