The Ravens going from an electric prime-time home win over New England to a half-empty Paul Brown Stadium on a sleepy Sunday in November is the proverbial setup for a letdown.
John Harbaugh’s team has emerged as a legitimate Super Bowl contender over the course of its four-game winning streak, but the NFL has a way of humbling you when you get too high, making it critical for the Ravens to be focused and energized against winless Cincinnati coming off its bye.
It’s time to go on the record as these division foes face off for the 48th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Ravens owning a slight 24-23 advantage. However, Baltimore is just 1-6 in its last seven trips to Cincinnati and is seeking a season sweep for the first time since 2011.
Below are five predictions for Sunday:
1. Lamar Jackson will rush for 100 yards against the Bengals — again. I’ve often compared Jackson’s speed to that unique pitcher with a 100-mph fastball and a slider with impossible bite. You have no idea what you’re dealing with until you step in the box, and your chances are unlikely to improve until you see that pitcher a few times. The Bengals are familiar with Jackson’s speed by now, had an extra week to prepare, and won’t let him set a career high like he did with 152 rushing yards last month, but Carlos Dunlap being on the field this time around only goes so far for the NFL’s worst run defense.
2. A long punt return will set up a score for Cincinnati. Much attention this week was on Cyrus Jones and his fumble that gave new life to the Patriots, but it was a kick return for a touchdown last month that kept the Bengals competitive in a game the Ravens totally dominated statistically. With Justin Bethel gone and Chris Moore dealing with a substantial thumb injury, the Ravens could be using two different gunners on the punt team than they used in that first meeting with the Bengals. That’s notable against a special-teams group rated first in the NFL in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders.
3. The Ravens defense will register a season-high four sacks and an interception. The combined three sacks collected over the last two games don’t tell the story of a pass rush showing recent improvement as Baltimore hit Russell Wilson eight times in Week 7 and Tom Brady 10 times last Sunday night. That pressure has been dependent on blitzing, something you’d expect Wink Martindale to use even more against a rookie quarterback. Unlike Wilson and Brady, however, Ryan Finley will hold the ball longer against tight coverage, allowing the Ravens to take him down in the pocket.
4. An up-tempo drive will lead to Finley’s first NFL touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd. The Patriots totaled 302 yards in the second and third quarters using a no-huddle attack that neutralized blitzes and prevented the Ravens from using their various sub packages, an approach likely to be copied in the coming weeks. Trusting Finley to operate without a huddle for the entire game would be too much to ask, but that strategy will help create some open throws. After being held to three catches for 10 yards in the first meeting, Boyd will have some modest success against Marlon Humphrey with a score.
5. Baltimore will again play “keep away” in the fourth quarter to prevail 24-16. The Ravens haven’t won three straight games by multiple scores since 2011 and are playing on the road against a team with nothing to lose coming off its bye, factors that should make one pause — at least a second — before simply expecting an easy win against a poor opponent. That said, the Ravens will have the chance to put together a nine-minute drive in the fourth quarter for the fourth straight game, a remarkable feat that drains any semblance of life from an opponent. This one won’t be the prettiest, but part of being a great team is handling inferior teams even when you’re not at your best, especially on the road. This is the kind of game that’s given the Ravens problems in recent years, but there will be no letdown as they extend their winning streak to five in a row, their longest within a single season since 2006.