Sunday’s game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens will decide one of the AFC’s two wild-card berths. If the Ravens win, they’ll clinch the fifth seed along with their seventh postseason appearance in 10 with John Harbaugh as head coach.
If the Ravens lose? They could still make it in at 9-7 but it would be messy. They’d need a loss by either the Buffalo Bills or Tennessee Titans to advance, far from a guarantee as both have very winnable games (the Titans, in particular, may play a Jaguars team that rests their starters). Controlling your own destiny is what you’d prefer in a playoff race.
As for the Bengals, Sunday marks the end of an era with Marvin Lewis almost certainly finishing up his tenure as head coach. No active coach other than Bill Belichick has been with a team longer; Lewis is finishing up his 15th season at the helm and will be on the short list of what’s expected to be up to 10 head coach openings throughout the league.
Can the Bengals play inspired football in this AFC North clash with their leader headed out the door? Or will the Ravens cruise to another playoff berth and their sixth 10-win season under Harbaugh?
Cincinnati at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 31 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Ravens -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Ravens’ defense continue their suffocating stretch?
If the Ravens do make the postseason, like most years they can thank their defense. Their three shutouts this year lead the league, including a 20-0 masterpiece against the Bengals in the season opener that set the tone for both teams. Their 18.1 points allowed per game ranks fourth in the NFL while their 4.99 yards allowed per play ranks fifth.
The Ravens D showed their cracks against the Steelers a few weeks back, giving up a season-high 39 points. But since then, they’ve been on point in posting back-to-back wins against the Browns and Colts. While those teams rank amongst the worst in the NFL offensively, the Ravens gave up only 26 points during that stretch while limiting the passing game to an average of less than 170 yards.
A defense forcing a league-high 33 turnovers is licking its chops at the chance to face Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (right) one more time. It was against the Ravens where Dalton had his worst game of the season, a zero-touchdown, four-interception performance from which the Bengals never really recovered. If the Ravens’ secondary, led by Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle can meddle in Dalton’s mind once more this one will be a rout by halftime.
2. Can Joe Flacco manage the game?
Despite sporting such a strong defense, the Ravens’ game against the Steelers earlier this month reminded everyone this team will go as far as Flacco (above, right) will take them. Flacco has suffered through one of the more difficult seasons of his career, dealing with injuries while passing for just 195.9 yards per game. That’s the lowest average since his rookie season of 2008, a significant drop-off in a league that’s become increasingly dependent on strong quarterback play.
But Flacco has appeared to recover as of late. His last four games have produced seven touchdowns and just one interception as the offense has produced 23-plus points every week. The team has gone 3-1 during that stretch while Flacco has protected himself in the pocket, getting sacked a total of just three times.
It’s easy to forget Flacco’s sterling postseason record which inspires confidence among his teammates. He’s 10-5 overall, a record which includes a Super Bowl ring and victories against some of the sport’s elite quarterbacks. Flacco has thrown for 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 15 postseason games; compare that to the 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season.
So if the Ravens can get to the postseason, Flacco’s history suggests he’ll step it up a notch. Against the Bengals and their inept offense, 20 points could easily win the game once again, meaning Flacco needs to simply manage the game and stay healthy. Connecting with Mike Wallace like he has been (the wide receiver has 337 receiving yards in the last four games) should be enough to tip the scales and push the Ravens down the field.
3. Can the Bengals play inspired football?
The Bengals messed up a lot of bets in Vegas last weekend with their stunning upset against the Lions in what was likely head coach Marvin Lewis’ final home game. The 26-17 victory snapped a three-game losing streak and a stretch of poor play following the team’s virtual playoff elimination after a last-second collapse against the Steelers last month.
Once that happened, a 23-20 defeat after taking a 17-0 lead, both the fate of this team and Lewis were sealed. The Bengals wound up getting outscored 67-14 in their next two games, including against the lowly Bears while distractions surrounding the future of Lewis and the coaching staff took center stage.
But as it became clear leading to Christmas Eve Lewis’ departure was imminent, the Bengals rallied and caught the Lions napping. Keep in mind Lewis, criticized for running a locker room that’s had its share of run-ins with the law, is beloved by his players. It’s the only coach Dalton, Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive leader (and fellow Pro Bowler) Geno Atkins have ever played for.
While there’s no real difference between 6-10 and 7-9 in the history books, the Bengals may have some extra emotion to ensure Lewis goes out a winner. Remember, this team was two last-minute losses to the Steelers and Titans (another likely AFC playoff team) from being in the postseason conversation themselves. A line of 9.5 seems high and ignores the emotion the Bengals showed in eliminating an NFC playoff contender on Christmas Eve.
On paper, the Ravens should win in a rout. But there are two factors that make this one close. One, it’s rare that a team goes and sweeps a division rival with two dominating performances. The Bengals are not a doormat like the Browns, more talented than their 6-9 record would indicate. Again, if that Steelers loss went the other way you’re likely looking at an 8-7 team (add a win against the Bears) who’d be fighting the Ravens for a wild-card berth.
The other sleeper storyline could be a weak home crowd at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh spoke out this week after the NFL moved the game from 1 p.m. to 4:25 in order to ensure all AFC Wild Card contenders played at the same time. But while that’s great for fans at home, it hurts a home crowd on the east coast as the game borders on interfering with New Year’s Eve plans. The Ravens have already been hurt by the NFL’s sagging popularity, season ticket holders boycotting home games citing protests surrounding the national anthem.
That could lead to an interesting finale where the Bengals come out against a weak crowd and play the Ravens tough, start to finish. It definitely feels like 9.5 points is far too high a line for a Ravens offense that has been hard to trust throughout the 2017 season.
But in the end, the push for the postseason just means too much. The Ravens are licking their chops for a matchup against the Chiefs on Wild Card Weekend (very winnable) and then a crack at either the Steelers or New England Patriots with nothing to lose. Kicker Justin Tucker will be enough to save the team if the Bengals post a stiff challenge in head coach Marvin Lewis’ last hurrah.
Prediction: Ravens 16, Bengals 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.