Sunday could possibly mark the start of a new era for the Ravens.
Or at least the soft opening of one.
With Joe Flacco not expected to play after sustaining a hip injury two weeks ago, Baltimore will enter a meaningful game with someone else at quarterback — the 2015 team was already buried when Flacco tore his ACL — for the first time since Kyle Boller relieved an injured Steve McNair midway through a disastrous 2007 season that ended with Brian Billick’s dismissal. Eleventh-year head coach John Harbaugh hopes for a different outcome as the Ravens aim to beat Cincinnati to snap a three-game losing streak and preserve their playoff hopes.
It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 46th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Bengals holding a 23-22 advantage. The Ravens are 9-12 against Cincinnati in the Harbaugh era, and they’ve lost eight of the last 10 meetings, which includes the 34-23 defeat at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 2.
Below are five predictions for Sunday:
1. Lamar Jackson will throw for a touchdown and run for another. My expectation is the rookie first-round pick from Louisville making his first NFL start, but a stomach illness forcing him to miss Thursday’s practice wasn’t ideal, leaving open the possibility of Robert Griffin III starting. Either way, Jackson will have a larger role as Marty Mornhinweg tries to take advantage of his mobility and set him up with high-percentage throws to tight ends and running backs from big formations, especially early on. Jackson doesn’t have to be the reason the Ravens win; he just can’t be why they lose.
2. Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon will carry the Cincinnati offense with a touchdown apiece. In 11 career games against Baltimore, A.J. Green has averaged 4.8 catches for 80.5 yards and has caught nine touchdowns, making his absence significant for a struggling Bengals offense. However, Boyd has emerged as one of the NFL’s best slot receivers — a critical factor with Baltimore’s issues covering the middle of the field — and has also made plays on the outside. Mixon ranks 11th in the league in yards per carry (4.9) while the Ravens have given up over 100 rushing yards in four of their last five games.
3. The Baltimore defense will awaken with three sacks and an interception against Andy Dalton. As I wrote this week, Wink Martindale’s group needs to step up if the Ravens want to save their season and survive this less-than-ideal quarterback situation. They have only two sacks in their last three games and just one takeaway in their last four while the Bengals offensive line surrendered three quarterback takedowns and 11 other pressures in 28 dropbacks against New Orleans last week. After repeatedly noting how many batted balls they have this season, it’s about time the Ravens catch one.
4. Alex Collins will eclipse 80 rushing yards for the first time all season. Much is made about Jackson’s presence helping the running game, but a Pro Football Weekly article illustrated it’s more than that. Collins has averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 29 attempts from “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end) and just 2.97 yards on 33 carries from “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends). What does that mean? No matter the quarterback, the Ravens should spread defenses out more when running and scale back the heavy formations that haven’t worked as effectively as they did last season.
5. The Ravens will survive in a 20-17 final to stop the pre-bye bleeding. Even against a Cincinnati defense that’s been disastrous in recent weeks and just fired coordinator Teryl Austin, expectations need to be tempered for a rookie quarterback making his first start in a critical game for a struggling playoff-hopeful team. That doesn’t mean Jackson won’t make some plays, but anyone labeling him an instant upgrade from Flacco is both placing too much pressure on a 21-year-old and disrespecting the veteran quarterback. Baltimore needs to go old school in this one by relying on the running game and a healthier defense that should be eager to prove it’s better than the last few weeks have reflected. If you’re asking what’s underneath the hood for this team right now, the losses to Carolina and Pittsburgh weren’t encouraging going into the bye. That said, I’d like to believe the Ravens aren’t quite ready to wave their playoff hopes goodbye, and the Bengals have lost three of four and are banged up at multiple positions. Given the current adversity for both teams, my honest feeling going into this one is closer to the old ¯\(ツ)/¯ emoji, but I’ll give the home team the benefit of the doubt.