OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The 2016 script for the Cincinnati Bengals should sound familiar to the Ravens.
A heartbreaking playoff loss the previous January.
The departure of a popular offensive coordinator and the loss of several key free agents.
A difficult early-season schedule that included four of the first six games on the road.
And a growing list of injuries.
At 3-6-1, the Bengals find their season all but ruined without a miraculous turnaround. The injuries to Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and shifty running back Giovani Bernard felt like the final nails in the coffin last Sunday, but consecutive post-bye losses by a total of five points have dropped Cincinnati out of serious contention in a mediocre AFC North.
It all sounds a lot like the Ravens’ circumstances a year ago that resulted in a 5-11 season, the franchise’s worst in nearly a decade. At the same point last year, Baltimore was 3-7 and already out of playoff contention.
“We haven’t won close games,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “We’ve had opportunities in the fourth quarter of football games. We’ve had leads. We’ve had opportunities, and we haven’t closed the games out.”
Of course, the Bengals’ woes guarantee nothing for the Ravens, who haven’t made things easy on themselves all season. Three of their five wins have come against the two worst teams in the AFC — Cleveland and Jacksonville — and just one of their victories has been by more than one score.
And don’t forget about that five-game losing streak against the Bengals, a drought dating back to the 2013 season. The Week 16 rematch with Pittsburgh is the most crucial game remaining on the schedule, but two games against Cincinnati — Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium and then the regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium — will be critical in determining the Ravens’ fate.
“We have to find a way to beat them,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “If we do not start beating the Bengals, then we are not going to win any division championships. That is especially true this year. To me, the whole thing goes through Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. We are going to have to win a couple other games, too, but it is the division. This is a division game. It is as simple as that.”
Starting fast is a goal every week, but the Ravens are facing a team that has one victory — against the winless Browns — since late September and will be without its best player. If ever there were a time for Baltimore to come out of the gate trying to step on the neck of an opponent, Week 12 is it.
The Bengals are down and know they likely need to win out to have any chance of extending their string of five consecutive trips to the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Ravens know they need to win these next two home games — including next week against Miami — to keep pace with the Steelers and put themselves in good position for a brutal final quarter of the season that includes road games at New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.
On Sunday, the Ravens can’t afford to give hope to a struggling team that still has some talented players on both sides of the ball.
“We want to continue to build and get better,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, whose 19 career interceptions against the Bengals are the most he’s thrown against any team. “I think it is huge to get going just to get our crowd in it and to get everybody excited — to get our guys excited. These guys have played us well. We have not beaten them in a long time. It is definitely going to be a tough game, but early on will be a big part.”
We know this is a flawed Ravens team expected to once again be without top cornerback Jimmy Smith, but their problems don’t run as deep as those of the Bengals, whose penalty-riddled collapse against Pittsburgh last January now looks like the moment their window of opportunity slammed shut. Baltimore is trying to show its own window is still open despite going 10-16 since the start of last season.
There’s no excuse not to beat the struggling Bengals if the Ravens want to be taken seriously the rest of the way. A loss would drastically change their outlook for their five remaining games.
Peppered with questions from the Baltimore media this week about how the losses of Green and Bernard impact his struggling team, Lewis said the Bengals still plan on showing up at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. No matter how Cincinnati might look right now, the Ravens can’t afford to take their AFC North rival lightly.
“Five straight is five straight. Numbers don’t lie,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “They have kind of had our number. We are going to see what we can do to change that.”