Paul Brown Stadium will serve as the backdrop on Sunday afternoon as the Cincinnati Bengals host the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC North showdown to open the 2017 season. The Ravens are coming off of a disappointing 8-8 season in which they lost three of their last four games and failed to make the playoffs for the third time in the last four years. Baltimore leaned heavily on free agency in the offseason to address its shortcomings, adding a host of new players to the starting lineup. But will it be enough to get past the Bengals on the road? Cincinnati has been a team that has been a real thorn in Baltimore’s side in recent years.
For the Bengals, an injury-plagued 2016 campaign put a screeching halt to a streak of five straight playoff appearances. Things could not have gone much worse for Marvin Lewis and company, as a 6-9-1 record was the first losing season since 2010 and ended a run of four straight 10-win campaigns. An offseason that saw several veteran players go elsewhere combined with an 11-man draft class has Cincinnati underdoing a bit of a youth movement as the team looks to return to it winning ways.
Sunday will mark the 43rd meeting all time between Baltimore and Cincinnati, a series that dates back to 1996. Fittingly, this divisional pairing is deadlocked at 21-21. Each team won at home last season, but the Bengals have won six out of the last seven meetings overall. Cincinnati also has won five straight at home against Baltimore.
Baltimore at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 10 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Cincinnati -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Joe Flacco
Flacco will be in the starting lineup on Sunday, but it isn’t exactly the ideal scenario for him or a Ravens offense with a lot of new pieces. Not only will Flacco have plenty of rust to knock off after missing the entire preseason with a back injury, he also will be facing a team on the road that has had his number for the better part of his career. Flacco has a career QB rating of 72.6 with just 16 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions in 17 career games against Cincinnati. In his two matchups against the Bengals last season, he had more interceptions (two) than touchdown passes (one).
If there is a bright side here, it is that he should be fresh for Sunday’s matchup. Flacco also gets to face a Cincinnati defense that will be without three of its top players. Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones are both serving suspensions, while starting safety Shawn Williams is nursing an elbow injury. Additionally, Flacco should benefit from the offseason additions of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and pass-catching running back Danny Woodhead. The Ravens struggled mightily at converting on third down last season, and both players have an exceptional track record in that regard. That said, it could take some time for Flacco to jell with his new weapons.
2. The ground game
The run game looms large for both teams on Sunday. However, the outlook doesn’t look particularly great for either team in that regard. The Ravens averaged just 81 rushing yards in two games against the Bengals last season. Cincinnati’s run defense doesn’t appear particularly elite for 2017, but neither does Baltimore’s rushing attack. Aside from All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda and tackle Ronnie Stanley, the Ravens’ offensive line has question marks. And Terrance West, while capable, is not exactly accustomed to the role of being a lead back.
The Bengals’ ground game faces an even bigger challenge against a Ravens defense that is built to stop the run. A challenge that becomes even more daunting with an offensive line that looks to be shaky at best. The Bengals’ track record against the Ravens also leaves plenty to be desired. Projected starter Jeremy Hill has averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and scored one touchdown in five career games against Baltimore. Third-down back Giovani Bernard (3.4 ypc, one rushing TD in six career games) also has had his struggles versus the Ravens. And while the hype surrounding controversial second-round pick Joe Mixon is huge, he’s still unproven at the NFL level. Mixon's role for Sunday remains unclear after being listed as third string on the Bengals’ depth chart. Regardless, he is sure to be a focal point any time he sets foot on the field.
3. A.J. Green
Like Joe Flacco, Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton hasn’t exactly had much success in this rivalry over the years. But one thing is clear, Dalton stands a much better chance when he has his favorite target on the field. A luxury he did not have in either matchup against the Ravens last season, while elite wide receiver A.J. Green was sidelined by injury. The good news is that Green is fully healthy and ready to go on Sunday. That could spell bad news for a Baltimore defense that has had had its hands full contending with Green in the past.
Green has scored at least one touchdown in each of his last 5 contests against the Ravens, averaging 120.8 receiving yards per game in the process. So, it stands to reason why Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh recently proclaimed that Green was the best receiver in the NFL. Green will undoubtedly be instrumental on Sunday, and his presence on the field alone provides a big advantage for Andy Dalton and the Bengals’ passing game.
This game has all the makings of a defensive showdown. And that being the case, the advantage would seem to go to Baltimore. But it’s hard to get past the Ravens’ lack of success against the Bengals in recent years. Baltimore has not won a game inside Paul Brown Stadium since 2012. It also does not bode well that the Ravens are in the midst of a six-game losing streak on the road that dates back to Sept. 25 of last year.
When you also factor in a rusty Joe Flacco, his struggles against Marvin Lewis-coached teams in the past, and the fact that he has almost no rapport with several key players in his new-look offense; it becomes increasingly difficult to like the Baltimore’s chances on Sunday. If Cincinnati can avoid costly turnovers, the Bengals should get just enough out of their offense to get the win at home.
Prediction: Cincinnati 20, Baltimore 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.