With a share of the AFC North lead in the balance, the Cincinnati Bengals travel to M&T Bank Stadium to take on the Ravens in the teams’ first meeting of the season.
Both right on the heels of 7-3 Pittsburgh, the Bengals are trying to rebound from a tough defeat to the Steelers while the Ravens want to erase the hangover from another loss to a sub-.500 team after falling in Seattle last week. Baltimore also hopes to avoid losing consecutive games for the first time since Oct. 2009.
Despite going through a number of changes in the offseason, the Bengals have provided plenty of problems for the Ravens over the last two seasons. Cincinnati has won three of the last four meetings, with the only Ravens win coming in an ugly 13-7 final in the regular-season finale last year.
The Ravens lead the all-time series, 16-14, and are 10-5 in games played in Baltimore. They are also looking for their seventh straight win at M&T Bank Stadium and 15th in their last 16 games at home. Their only loss over that stretch came against Pittsburgh in a Sunday night game last December.
Here’s what to expect when the Bengals and Ravens meet on Sunday …
1. The Bengals will use Cedric Benson as their workhouse to keep the Ravens defense on the field as long as possible. Some concern has been raised over the Baltimore run defense after it’s allowed more than 100 rushing yards in three of the last four games, but the Ravens remain tied for third in the league in rush defense and have allowed only 3.3 yards per attempt, best in the NFL. That said, opposing offenses appear content in grinding it out on the ground as was the case with Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew, Arizona’s Beanie Wells, and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch last week. With rookie quarterback Andy Dalton making his first trip to Baltimore against the sixth-ranked pass defense in the league, the Bengals will use Benson as much as they can. Defensive leader Ray Lewis is very unlikely to play on Sunday, so the front seven will be more vulnerable than normal with either Dannell Ellerbe — coming off a hamstring injury — or the undersized Brendon Ayanbadejo filling in at the inside linebacker spot next to Jameel McClain. Cincinnati would like to give Benson 25 or more carries, and an early lead would go a long way in accomplishing that.
2. Ray Rice will get double-digit carries, but most of his damage will come as a pass catcher. After carrying the ball only five times in last week’s loss to the Seahawks, critics have been screaming for Rice to be more involved in the offense. Of course, three turnovers in the first 35 minutes of the game didn’t exactly help the Ravens in controlling the tempo. Offensive Cam Cameron has plenty of pressure on him to feed the ball to Rice early, but Cincinnati’s second-ranked rush defense won’t make it easy for the star running back to get his yards. Other than an early rout of the St. Louis Rams, the Ravens haven’t been able to run against four-man fronts all season, so it’s difficult to envision that changing against Mike Zimmer’s talented defense. However, the Bengals have been vulnerable in underneath coverage, so Rice should be able to exploit their outside linebackers Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard for nice yardage as a receiver out of the backfield.
3. As has been the case in previous games between these AFC North foes in the John Harbaugh era, the team that wins the turnover battle will win the game. Of the six games played between the Ravens and Bengals over the last three seasons, the team that’s committed fewer turnovers is 4-0. Giveaways have become a problem for the Ravens as they’ve committed at least one in their last eight games and have two or more in six of their last eight. Baltimore is 2-3 when losing the turnover battle this season, and coaches and players talked most of the week about their need to take better care of the football. Winning the turnover battle is a simple principle obeyed by successful teams, but the Ravens have only done it once in their last five games. They’re 3-2 over that stretch, but that trend is unlikely to continue. Cincinnati’s 13 takeaways are tied for seventh in the AFC and their plus-3 turnover ratio is tied for 10th in the NFL. The Ravens’ 18 takeaways rank fourth in the AFC, but their pace has slowed considerably with just four forced turnovers in their last five games.
4. Ed Reed will break his eight-game interception drought with an important second-half pick of Dalton. With Lewis expected to miss his first game since the 2007 season, Reed becomes the elder statesman of the Baltimore defense. The Ravens have several veterans to try to fill the void of Lewis’ leadership, but they would surely benefit from a big play by the free safety, who’s been very quiet since sustaining a shoulder stinger in the loss to Jacksonville on Oct. 24. The Bengals will try to keep their offense moving on the ground, but Dalton will have to try to make a few plays to beat the Ravens in their home stadium. Rookie phenom receiver A.J. Green is unlikely to be available, meaning the Bengals will lack a deep threat to consume Reed’s attention in the backfield. That will allow him to freelance a bit more, making him especially dangerous against an inexperienced signal caller. Reed will bait Dalton into throwing an interception in the second half, setting up the Ravens offense on a short field for a key score.
5. It won’t be aesthetically pleasing if you’re a fan of offense, but the Ravens will do enough to earn a 20-16 win over Cincinnati. It lacks the high-stakes feel of the Pittsburgh rivalry, but the Ravens and Bengals have played a number of physical, low-scoring affairs of their own over the last few seasons. Joe Flacco will have an easier time against the cornerback tandem of Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings than he had in the past against Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, but the Bengals’ front four does a nice job of creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Baltimore will do just enough offensively against a formidable Bengals defense, but the home-field advantage will give the Ravens the edge where they are 4-0 this season. The Bengals are a good team, but they remain a bit of an unknown due to a soft schedule. Marvin Lewis is deserving of Coach of the Year honors, but his young team is not in the same class as Baltimore and Pittsburgh — this season, at least.