An AFC North clash looks a bit different than it did earlier in the year as Cincinnati travels to Baltimore, hoping to salvage their season from completely spiraling out of control. Both teams are coming off tough losses on the field but are going in opposite directions in terms of their roster as the Ravens are finally starting to get healthier while the Bengals are very much a M.A.S.H. unit at the moment.
That’s one reason why there’s a ton of uncertainty for this matchup, especially when it comes to a three-win Cincinnati team that is remarkably just 1.5 games behind in the division. While Andy Dalton has been solid at quarterback, he will be without the best player on the team in A.J. Green (hamstring) and terrific tailback Giovani Bernard (ACL) after each left last week’s loss to Buffalo early. That will put a bunch of pressure on their replacements and shift even more of the load onto Dalton and the team’s disappointing defense.
At the same time, Baltimore looked competitive with the league-leading Dallas Cowboys on Sunday but didn’t quite have enough horses to close them out on the road. The Ravens hold a slim lead in the division thanks to their head-to-head win over Pittsburgh but are looking for more than their tenuous position in the standings. Quarterback Joe Flacco is opening things up a bit and has formed a potent combination with veteran Steve Smith Sr., who is having a banner year, including 99 yards and a touchdown last Sunday.
It should make for another great AFC North showdown as the two rivals get together for the first time this season. The overall series is tied at an even 20 games apiece but Cincinnati has won six of the past seven. The Bengals won their last meeting back in January while Green was the hero for the team in the last win in Baltimore, scoring the game-winning touchdown with a little more than two minutes to go as he piled up 227 yards as well.
Cincinnati at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 27 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Ravens -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Dalton’s New Targets
While the team is optimistic that A.J. Green will return at some point this season, he will certainly be out on Sunday and that is a huge blow to the passing offense that was one of the few things worth tuning in for with the Bengals. His replacements will certainly have to step up and find a rhythm with Andy Dalton but the good news is that Brandon LaFell is coming on lately and has a touchdown catch in each of the past three road games. Add in tight end Tyler Eifert and things may not be too bad even if the aerial attack is going to take a hit with their top target out. Don’t discount the loss of Giovani Bernard either, so backup Rex Burkhead could get more of a run on third downs.
2. Kick-starting Baltimore’s Offense
Nobody is going to confuse the Ravens for jumping into some of the recent NFL trends when it comes to spreading folks out and getting into shootouts. The team’s offense has been relatively stagnant despite their wins and part of that comes down to the line being in flux and their inability to consistently run the football. It’s not like they don’t have weapons however, as big-armed signal-caller Joe Flacco is under center, Terrance West has flashed running the ball and the trio of Steve Smith Sr., Mike Wallace and Dennis Pitta provide matchup problems. The Bengals are 24th in the league defensively and are in the bottom quarter in stopping the run thanks to getting plowed over in Dallas. If there’s a game where Baltimore can get going offensively and use that to propel them on the stretch run, it’s this one.
3. State of the Defense
Remember when Cincinnati was using a bruising defense to win the AFC North on a regular basis? Neither do the Bengals, at least this season. The unit has been remarkably lackluster from the opening week on and a big reason why the team is at the bottom of the division. Injuries have played a factor and nearly the entire Cincy linebacker corps is questionable for Sunday to add to the woes. Baltimore also is dealing with injuries, especially as it relates to the secondary. They entered the Dallas game with the top defense in the NFL but were run off the field by a pair of rookies last week to the tune of more than 400 yards. Whichever unit regroups to show a bit of its former self on the defensive side of the ball will have a much better chance of winning this one.
Just when you thought either Cincinnati or Baltimore have turned the corner in its quest for a playoff berth, each team has followed up with a letdown game. The Bengals have lost two straight and previously tied Washington in London before that to round out a lackluster three-game stretch the past month. While many expected the team to take advantage of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger getting injured, Marvin Lewis’ team has instead gone the opposite direction and are now dealing with enough major injuries that NFL Draft positioning might be a bigger topic to discuss around town than another playoff appearance.
The Ravens are one of the league’s most puzzling teams, putting together (when healthy) one of the better defenses in the AFC but without an offense that can take advantage. That makes the margin for error in games extremely thin and one reason why there has been only one game (against the Browns) that the team has played that hasn’t been decided by fewer than 10 points. The schedule only gets tougher as the weather gets colder and if Baltimore harbors any hopes of getting back to the playoffs, the Ravens will need to take advantage of games like this against a team whose record is reflective of how it has been playing.
Yet as iffy as John Harbaugh’s squad is right now, the Ravens are still in a lot better shape than their AFC North counterparts. The Bengals still have some talent but key injuries on offense like A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard mean the will need their best outing of the season from everybody to make up for their loss. Baltimore has to be upset over missed opportunities from last week’s trip to play the Cowboys and should be able to regroup at home against a familiar opponent.
The game will probably be close and feature plenty of long drives that lean heavily on the run but ultimately the Ravens will come out on top to stay atop the division.
Prediction: Ravens 21, Bengals 17
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.