The Ravens have never dropped a regular-season finale under coach John Harbaugh, a trend they hope to continue on Sunday when they travel to Paul Brown Stadium to take on the Cincinnati Bengals.
The objective is simple for both teams as Baltimore needs a win to clinch its third AFC North title and a first-round bye in the postseason while the Bengals would clinch a postseason berth with a victory. A loss by either side puts their respective fates in the hands of others.
Baltimore has won seven consecutive AFC North division games and nine of their last 10. A win would give the Ravens an undefeated mark in division play for the first time in the history of the franchise.
Of course, these teams met in Baltimore on Nov. 20 as the Ravens held on for a 31-24 victory at M&T Bank Stadium. However, the 483 total yards from the Bengals offense were the most allowed by the Baltimore defense all season.
Here’s what to expect when the Ravens try to win in Cincinnati for the first time since the 2008 season …
1. With Marshal Yanda unlikely to play, Ray Rice will find little running room against a stout Cincinnati run defense. It’s true that Rice ran for 104 yards on 20 carries in the first meeting with the Bengals, but 59 of those came on one run, which reflects why offensive coordinator Cam Cameron should continue feeding Rice the ball as long as the Ravens aren’t facing a multiple-possession deficit. It also spells out how well the Cincinnati run defense — ranked fifth in the entire NFL — did against the Pro Bowl back aside from that long run, holding him to 45 yards on his other 19 attempts. If veteran Andre Gurode or rookie Jah Reid is filling in at right guard for Yanda, it limits what the Ravens are able to do in the running game as Yanda is often used to pull and get out in space to block for the shifty Rice. While many have pointed to the return of Ben Grubbs for the Ravens’ improvement in the running game, Rice has run the ball to the right side 106 times (441 yards) this season as opposed to 102 times (512 yards) to the left when most teams generally prefer left more than right. Given their current lack of depth at wide receiver, the Ravens would love to control the tempo with the ground game, but the Bengals will make that very difficult to do, likely holding Rice to 60 rushing yards or less.
2. The Baltimore defense will once again lack the necessary pass rush on the road to shake rookie quarterback Andy Dalton. The Ravens lead the AFC with 47 sacks this season, but only 14 have come away from home as the defense has struggled to get to the quarterback on the road, a major factor contributing to their 3-4 record in road contests. Linebacker Terrell Suggs has earned Defensive Player of the Year consideration after a 13-sack season, but the 29-year-old has only three away from M&T Bank Stadium. He has struggled to do much against Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth — just one sack in the last five games against the Bengals — and the Ravens sacked Dalton only twice in their November meeting. Chuck Pagano’s defense thrives on the emotion of its home stadium and just doesn’t have the same impact on the road, generating only seven takeaways in seven road games as opposed to 17 turnovers at home. Dalton threw for 373 yards — and three interceptions — in his first meeting against the Ravens and played with far more confidence in the fourth quarter as the Bengals nearly erased a 17-point deficit.
3. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green will require safety help deep, leaving the Ravens secondary vulnerable elsewhere. The Ravens were fortunate to avoid the rookie phenom in their first meeting with the Bengals, but Green has drawn comparisons to the impact Randy Moss made as a rookie in Minnesota in 1998. His 1,031 yards earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl as he’s rewritten the Bengals’ record book for rookie receivers. The Ravens will have little choice but to provide safety help to whomever guards the 6-foot-4 Green, which will open things up for 6-foot-5 tight end Jermaine Gresham and wide receiver Jerome Simpson, who toasted the Baltimore defense for eight catches and 152 yards in November. The Ravens would benefit greatly if Cary Williams is cleared to play in time for Sunday’s game after suffering a concussion in Week 16, but Dalton will have plenty of open targets to throw to if Baltimore is unable to dial up pressure. Green may not be the one to make the big catches on Sunday afternoon, but his presence will have the Ravens scrambling to keep up with open Cincinnati receivers. Assuming Ed Reed is providing the deep help for Green, Gresham could have a field day matching up in single coverage against the likes of strong safety Bernard Pollard and the Ravens linebackers. It won’t be as bad as it was against San Diego two weeks ago, but the Bengals will continue what they started against the Baltimore secondary last month.