No strangers to entering Week 17 with work to do to make it to the postseason, the Ravens have never entered the final game needing a win and help from other teams under John Harbaugh as they try to beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
A win would give Baltimore its sixth straight winning season under Harbaugh, but the Ravens would also need a loss by either Miami or San Diego to extend their season into January and give them a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. Of course, Baltimore’s playoff chances wouldn’t completely vanish with a loss, but losses by Miami, San Diego, and Pittsburgh would be required to land the Ravens in the postseason with an 8-8 record.
Even though the Bengals wrapped up the AFC North championship with a win and Baltimore’s loss to New England last Sunday, the Ravens won the first meeting between these teams earlier this season by forcing three turnovers and taking advantage of 134 yards in penalties committed by Cincinnati. The Bengals have been a different team at home this year as they are 7-0 and have scored more than 40 points in each of their last four contests at Paul Brown Stadium.
It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet to conclude the regular season for the fourth straight year — the last three in Cincinnati — and for the 36th time overall in the last 18 years. The Ravens have won five of the last six against Cincinnati and lead the overall series by a 20-15 margin, but the Bengals are 10-7 against Baltimore playing at home.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to win and receive help to advance to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season …
1. Torrey Smith eclipses 100 receiving yards for the first time since Oct. 6 to set the single-season franchise record for receiving yards. The third-year wideout looked to be on his way to the Pro Bowl after collecting at least 85 receiving yards in each of his first five games, but he’s hit that mark only once since then as he and quarterback Joe Flacco just haven’t looked to be on the same page. Teams have used plenty of single-high safeties shading him to take away the deep ball, but the Ravens haven’t been able to take advantage on the opposite side. However, the speedy Jacoby Jones has been a bigger factor recently and tight end Dennis Pitta is now in the picture, which will allow Smith to recapture his early-season success with a long catch and his first 100-yard game since Oct. 6 to break Michael Jackson’s team record of 1,201 receiving yards set in 1996.
2. Flacco will show improved mobility, but his left knee will still be an issue as the Bengals bring plenty of inside pressure to collect four sacks. Nothing went well against New England last week, but the sixth-year quarterback must play at a much higher level for the Ravens to have a good chance to beat Cincinnati on the road. Once again wearing a brace this week, Flacco showed better mobility in the second half against New England, but Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is notorious for bringing pressure up the middle, an area where the Baltimore offensive line has struggled mightily all year. Flacco played poorly against Cincinnati earlier in the year — two interceptions and only 3.9 yards per passing attempt — and will fare better than that, but he will be under duress too much against the league’s fifth-ranked defense on Sunday afternoon.
3. Giovani Bernard will run for a touchdown and catch another as a matchup problem against the Ravens defense. Trying to contain Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green is always the top priority when you play the Bengals, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees and his unit must be mindful of the rookie Bernard, who had 22 touches for 97 total yards in Week 10 and is very dangerous in open space. The Ravens have struggled against shifty running backs such as Reggie Bush, Le’Veon Bell, and Matt Forte this season and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton will try to find Bernard underneath often with the status of tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert in doubt due to injuries. With rain potentially in the forecast for Sunday, Dalton will use Bernard in a way similar to Flacco finding running back Ray Rice earlier in his career, and the rookie will have a big day.
4. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs combine for three sacks, but the Baltimore defense is unable to force turnovers like it did when these teams met in early November. This pass-rushing duo has failed to make the same impact down the stretch as in the first half, but Dumervil’s best game of the year came against the Bengals when he collected three sacks lining up primarily against Andre Smith and Suggs will no longer be lining up against nemesis Andrew Whitworth, who has moved inside to left guard due to injuries. The Ravens must harass Dalton as they did in November when they pressured him into throwing three interceptions, but the Bengals haven’t turned it over at home — going plus-eight in turnovers in seven home games — and the third-year quarterback will be smart with the football knowing his team is playing a below-average offense.
5. The Ravens will battle, but a tired group that’s been poor on the road all year will fall 27-19 to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007. The history of the Harbaugh era tells you the Ravens will figure out some way to win this game against a superior team and receive the necessary help to sneak into the playoffs, but nothing lasts forever and Baltimore’s poor performance last week smelled of fatigue and being overmatched. The Ravens received some good fortune during their four-game winning streak, but the same issues were there with a below-average offense lacking a running game and a defense that plays well overall but doesn’t force turnovers or consistently finish games. They have the pride to compete with the Bengals, but a season that included too much mediocrity, a 4-6 start, and a 2-5 road record entering Sunday ends with the Ravens staying home in January.