For the first time since Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens enter a game knowing it will be their last one of a season.
Their playoff hopes may have been all but crushed by Halloween, but John Harbaugh and his team have looked toward the future and believe they’re already laying the groundwork for the 2016 season despite 20 players — eight of them starters — currently residing on injured reserve. Last Sunday’s 20-17 upset win over Pittsburgh served as their version of a Super Bowl in Baltimore’s first season with double-digit losses since 2007.
Of course, a number of Ravens could be playing their final game with the franchise on Sunday as offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, linebacker Courtney Upshaw, and kicker Justin Tucker headline a list of pending free agents this offseason. Specifics remain cloudy, but Baltimore will undergo a number of changes this winter in an effort to bounce back from the first losing season of the Harbaugh era.
It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Cincinnati for the 40th time in franchise history and own a 20-19 mark. Baltimore has lost four straight and five of the last six to the Bengals, who are trying to clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Denver loss.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to wrap a disappointing 2015 season on a high note with back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati …
1. Ryan Mallett will come back down to earth after a surprising Ravens debut. I still can’t quite believe how easy it looked for the quarterback against the Steelers as he made good decisions and commanded the huddle less than two weeks after being signed. That said, Mallett was playing at home and against a defense inferior to the one he’ll see this week. The Bengals are effective disguising their blitzes and coverages before the snap, which will result in choppier results from the Baltimore offense playing in a hostile environment. Mallett showed against Pittsburgh why the Ravens envision him as their 2016 backup to Joe Flacco, but he’ll make more mistakes and turn it over twice in his second start.
2. The Ravens secondary will not hold down A.J. Green like it did against Antonio Brown. Asked how to stop the Bengals’ five-time Pro Bowl receiver, defensive coordinator Dean Pees joked, “Make him inactive.” The Ravens threw everything but the kitchen sink at Brown in coverage last week and held him to seven catches for 61 yards, but Green is a different player because of his 6-foot-4 frame. It will be interesting to see if Jimmy Smith shadows Green, but the cornerback had one of his worst games of the season against him in Week 3. Green’s recent numbers have been stunted with AJ McCarron starting, but that will change as he goes over 100 receiving yards and catches a touchdown.
3. Maxx Williams will finish with the best game of his rookie season. It’s been a quiet year for the second-round pick, but his 26 catches for 215 yards and a touchdown have outdone the likes of Todd Heap, Dennis Pitta, and Crockett Gillmore in their respective rookie years. The 21-year-old needs to mature physically and improve his agility and quickness this offseason, but he’s been targeted 10 times over the last two games and should have an advantage when matched up against Cincinnati’s coverage-challenged linebackers. With the Bengals strong in the secondary, Mallett will look Williams’ way over the middle portion of the field and he’ll catch a touchdown and surpass 50 receiving yards.
4. Giovani Bernard and Buck Allen will each catch touchdown passes against linebackers who struggle in coverage. McCarron and Mallett will see check-downs to their backs as their best friend. Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley have both struggled against the pass this year, so look for the Ravens to again use Zach Orr in some obvious passing situations in an effort to slow Bernard out of the backfield. Meanwhile, the Bengals’ trio of A.J. Hawk, Rey Maualuga, and Vontaze Burfict simply lack the athleticism to cover, which should create some open space for Allen. Neither quarterback will put up big-time numbers, but their running backs will help in moving the ball through the air.
5. The Ravens will conclude the 2015 season with a 24-17 loss, their 14th game decided by one possession. You couldn’t help but be impressed by the way Baltimore played against its arch rival in Week 16, but the Bengals are a more balanced team than Pittsburgh and have something to play for in the regular-season finale. The Ravens will compete despite their personnel deficiencies and misfortune, but I just can’t see Mallett playing at such a high level again on the road and against a better defense that’s given Flacco problems over the years. Ultimately, a couple crucial mistakes will be the difference as Baltimore is left wondering what might have been in the final game of a lost season.