Two teams with postseason aspirations collide in an AFC North tilt that already carries serious implications for both. The Bengals are in the midst of their best run in franchise history but have no postseason wins to show for it. A division title and home playoff game are the expectation for an increasingly restless fan base, and the march to those spoils starts in M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Ravens are looking for a bounce-back season following an injury-marred 8–8 disappointment and are glad to get back to football after an offseason that was dominated by the Ray Rice saga.
Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Baltimore -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Home Sweet Home
Even amid the disappointment of an underachieving 8–8 season, the Ravens were a tough out at home in 2013, going 6–2 at M&T Bank Stadium — including a 20–17 overtime win over the Bengals, who haven't won in Baltimore since 2009. Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens have posted a 39–9 mark at home, the NFL’s second-best home record during that span (2008-13). The Bengals were 3–5 on the road last season, and they must figure out a way to win more tough road tests to take the next step as a franchise. This game certainly qualifies.
2. Cincy's $115 million Man
When news broke of Andy Dalton's six-year, $115 million deal, the Internet exploded in righteous indignation over paying such a huge sum to a guy without a playoff win. Closer scrutiny reveals a deal that includes plenty of protection for the Bengals — only $17 million is guaranteed — and pays Dalton like the solid second-tier quarterback he is. That won't stop Bengals fans from demanding more from the copper-topped gunslinger than last season's 20-interception regular season and first-round playoff flameout. Dalton will be under pressure to lead his team to postseason success, and that starts with winning the division, making this season-opening AFC North showdown especially significant. "The way the schedule is, they start us off right off the bat with a division opponent," Dalton said. "So it does set the tone. It really shows the expectations of what we have here."
3. Ravens on the Run
When you have a game manager like Joe Flacco running the show, you need a ground-and-pound element to your offensive attack, something the Ravens were woefully lacking in 2013. Baltimore averaged only 83 yards rushing per game last season on an NFL-worst 3.1 yards per carry, and leading rusher Ray Rice (only 660 yards in 2013) will be missing in action while he serves his suspension for domestic abuse. The spotlight will be on fill-in lead back Bernard Pierce and an offensive line that will be seeking redemption in 2014, as they try to relieve some of the pressure from Flacco's shoulders. Forced to the air in 2013, Flacco tossed a career-worst 22 interceptions. The Ravens must be more balanced this season.
For Cincinnati to have the kind of season its players expect and its fans demand, a good start is important. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is only 4–7 in season openers in his career, including 3–5 on the road, but Cincy did play spoiler for the Ravens last season, dominating John Harbaugh's club 34–17 in the season finale and knocking Baltimore out of playoff contention. Joe Flacco should be operating behind a healthier, stouter offensive line, and he's added a weapon in wideout Steve Smith. His counterpart, Andy Dalton, has struggled against the Ravens, going 2–4 in his six starts and tossing 11 interceptions to only six touchdowns for a passer rating of 62.4. Even without Ray Rice to run the football, this one feels like a Ravens win and an important step in a season of redemption.