With the Bengals playing a win-and-you’re-in game against the Ravens, I am impressed with the front office’s BOGO promotion to try to sell out the stadium for the second time this year. Say what you want about Mike Brown (and many of us have), but this is another move he has gotten right this year. Even more impressive, Mikey is dipping into his own wallet on this one, as the Bengals have to pay the league $22 for every free ticket to cover the visitor’s cut on the ticket.
And I am proud of fans for responding. The players have earned the opportunity to play in front of a sell-out crowd as they look to make the playoffs for the third time in seven years. They deserve to have a loud, raucous crowd to pay back the Ravens for the crowd noise that helped keep them 7 yards short of what would have been the biggest comeback of the year.
When the Ravens have the ball…
The Ravens went undefeated at home this year (surprisingly, for the first time), but they are not nearly the same team on the road with a 3-4 record as they make their way to Cincinnati. The offense has struggled more on the road this year, with Flacco being held to a passer rating under 70 four times in opposing stadiums.
QB Joe Flacco v. pressure. Flacco typically struggles in Cincinnati. But the key to slowing him down (like many other QBs) is putting pressure on him. He reminds me of Carson Palmer. He can be very effective with room to work, but he quickly becomes pedestrian when the pocket collapses. With Carlos Dunlap able to play at a normal level again this time around, the Bengals’ defensive line must put their hands on Flacco as often as possible to limit his effectiveness.
The Ravens’ offensive line has been mediocre this year. They have allowed 76 hits on Flacco and 32 sacks, putting them in the middle of the pack at #13 in protecting their QB. They are also more prone to giving up sacks on the road.
LG Andre Gurode v. DT Geno Atkins. While he is not playing solely for the stats, surely Atkins knows that he is on the verge of setting a franchise record in sacks for a defensive tackle. But I suspect that making the playoffs and taking down a division rival are bigger motivators for him. 10-year veteran Gurode draws the unenviable job of stopping him from collecting that record-setting sack.
RT Michael Oher v. LDE Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap tried to play against the Ravens in the first matchup, but his hamstring limited him in snaps and in effectiveness. Now that he is back to full strength again, he will be a factor this time around. A game-changing factor, I think.
The Ravens’ running game has been effective this year, with over 1600 yds so far this year. If the Bengals’s defense can maintain their 97 yds/game average against the Ravens, I love their odds of winning this game.
RBs Ray Rice v. LB Rey Maualuga. Limiting the damage done by rushing/receiving threat Ray Rice is the top priority for the defense. He lugged the ball 20 times for 104 yds back on Nov. 20. But if the Ravens continue their trend of using Rice nearly half as often on the road (175 carries at home v. only 92 carries on the road), he will have trouble duplicating that number. And that would be a great thing for the Bengals.
With Anquan Boldin out, the Ravens have two real passing threats: Torrey Smith and Ray Rice. Erasing one of the two will severely limit what the Ravens can do on offense.
WRs Torrey Smith and LaQuan Williams v. CBs Nate Clements and Adam Jones. The Bengals’ secondary struggled against the Ravens in Round 1 after having just lost Leon Hall for the season the week before. But they have rebounded in recent weeks as they have learned to compensate for his absence. While losing LH helped contribute to the Bengals losing against the better teams this season, it may help them next year. But for this week, I do not think that Smith as the lone wideout threat will put up the same 165 yds that he did on Nov. 20.
TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta v. LB Thomas Howard. For the Ravens’ passing game to be effective, they must get production out of their two TEs. Dickson had only 2 catches for 21 yds against the Bengals, while Pitta recorded no receiving stats. One of them must present themselves as a viable third option behind Smith and Rice for the Ravens to move the ball consistently. If not, the Ravens will stall on too many drives.
When the Bengals have the ball…
The Ravens’ defense is not likely to allow nearly 500 yds of offense to the Bengals again this time around. But if the Bengals take better care of the ball this time, they will not need so many yards to win. And to pay back the Ravens for a number of items from the first meeting.
QB Andy Dalton v. payback. Andy had the best game of his career in Baltimore, putting up 373 yds passing. Just 7 more yds would have changed not just that game, but the entire shape of the division. The Ravens picked him three times in round 1, all on short passes to the right. With the Ravens looking to make hay there again, he and Jay Gruden must do a better job of mixing up the plays.
While the Ravens are more likely to give up sacks on the road, the Bengals have given up half as many at home. The Bengals only gave up two sacks in Baltimore, and they must keep the Ravens to two or fewer this time as well.
LT Andrew Whitworth v. RDE Haloti Ngata. This will be a 15-round heavy-weight brawl. Ngata doesn’t make a lot of sacks, but he is well-known for disrupting plays. Whitworth continues to grind with little recognition nationally for the quality player he has become. The winner of this matchup will partly determine the potency of the Bengals’ offense.
The Ravens are still limiting opponents to just over 90 yds/game on the ground. And the Bengals, despite re-committing to the run again, are still just a mediocre running team. Controlling the ground game is the best way to take he Ravens out of what they want to do defensively, and ultimately to control the game.
RBs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott v. LB Ray Lewis. Neither of these two look to be the long-term answer at RB. But both need to put together a good game for their futures, whether those be with the Bengals or elsewhere. The two combined for 81 yds on Nov. 20, not a great day for either. Lewis returns for this game, but I don’t see him adding much punch to the midfield.
The Ravens still rank high against the pass, but Jay Gruden and Andy Dalton proved that they know where the weaknesses in their secondary are. This is one of those games where the Bengals will need to throw to open up the running game.
PRO-BOWL WR A.J. Green and WR Jerome Simpson v. CBs Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. Having A.J. Green back for this game will be a huge difference-maker. Webb and Williams are solid, but not good enough to account for the prowess of Green.
Jerome Simpson had a huge day (152 yds) against the Ravens, and a new kid named Andrew Hawkins impressed us that day too. The Bengals need these two receivers to make their presence felt again. Especially Simpson, who could very well be looking for a job in the spring if he struggles.
TE Jermaine Gresham v. LB Terrell Suggs. I am still irritated by the TD catch that Gresham had taken away from him in Baltimore. He needs to make them pay for it with a 80 yd day.
We were all thinking the same thing when we heard that the Ravens had signed Shayne Graham to fill in for the injured Billy Cundiff. You were as glad to hear it as I was. If this game comes down to a clutch kick for the Ravens, there are few I’d prefer to have kicking it than Graham.
P Sam Koch v. P Kevin Huber. Koch has a slight advantage, with a +2.7 yds/punt average. Huber has the stronger leg, but he has shanked a higher number than I would have expected this year. Neither has had a punt blocked this season. The more consistent punter will gain those precious hidden yards.
K Shayne Graham v. K Mike Nugent. I hope Graham works the same magic for the Ravens that he did for the Bengals in his last few years here.
PR Lardarius Webb v. PR Brandon Tate. The Bengals gain back those hidden yards from punt distance in returns. If not for a 68-yard TD return, his average would be under 8 yds average, putting Tate’s average at +2.7 yds/ret.
KR David Reed v. KR Brandon Tate. Reed is averaging 6.0 yds/ret better than Tate. Those are some important hidden yards. The Bengals must contain him and keep him below his nearly 30 yd/ret average while opening holes for Tate.
The Ravens’ offense struggles away from home anyway, but it is struggling more without Anquan Boldin. With only two real threats to key on, Torrey Smith and Ray Rice, a defense as solid as the Bengals should be able to hold the Ravens well below the 31 points they scored on Nov. 20.
With Carlos Dunlap able to contribute more this time, the Bengals should get more pressure on Flacco. Hopefully a noisy crowd will help cause confusion for a Ravens’ line that has had a harder time protecting Flacco on the road. On the flip side, having A.J. Green back will add some potency to a Bengals offense that needed just a little more oomph to grab a win in Baltimore. Having these two back is a greater net gain than the Ravens having Ray Lewis back for them.
Special teams will have a lot to say about this game through field position. Either team can overcome errors through a solid return/return coverage game.
The Ravens are playing to secure a first-round bye. But their play has not been solid since beating the 49ers on Thanksgiving. With their struggles on the road and missing Anquan Boldin, I don’t think the Ravens have quite enough to beat the Bengals at home, who are playing for a surprising but deserved playoff spot. If the Ravens managed to lose in Cincinnati to a 4-12 team last year, they can certainly lose to a much improved 9-6 team this year.
Final Score: Baltimore 17. Cincinnati 24.