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Cincinnati Bengals vs. Baltimore Ravens Prediction: AFC North Race Heats up on SNF

Defending division champs aim for a third straight win over Lamar Jackson and company.

The AFC North was expected to be one of the most competitive NFL divisions this season, and that's been the case through four weeks with three teams knotted at 2-2 atop the standings.

Two of them will go head-to-head on "Sunday Night Football" when the Ravens host the Bengals in a highly anticipated matchup.

Related: NFL Predictions for Every Game in Week 5

Despite the Browns currently holding the tiebreaker and the Bengals being the reigning AFC champs, the Ravens are the odds-on favorites to win the division at this point. But that could change quickly with the first tiebreaker for playoff seeding being head-to-head record.

The Ravens and Bengals have split their four meetings since Cincinnati drafted Joe Burrow, with Baltimore taking the first two and Cincy sweeping last season's series. And none of the games have been particularly close, with just one decided by 20 points.

That's not likely to be the case on Sunday night, considering how evenly these teams have played so far this season. Their point differentials (Bengals, plus-21; Ravens, plus-19) are nearly identical, and they have two of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the league.

Can the Bengals win a third straight game over the Ravens and re-establish their AFC North dominance? Or will Baltimore bounce back from a tough loss to Buffalo with a signature win?

Sunday Night Football: Cincinnati (2-2) at Baltimore (2-2)

Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 2 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Ravens -3
Tickets: As low as $109 on SITickets.com*

Three Things to Watch

1. Is Joe Burrow back?
Burrow was the darling of the 2021 season after leading the NFL with a 70.4 percent completion rate and 8.9 yards per attempt while taking the Bengals to the Super Bowl. But his start to the 2022 season was fairly rough.

Burrow took 13 sacks, threw four interceptions, and lost three fumbles in two losses to open the season, looking indecisive and uncharacteristically inaccurate. Cincinnati bolstered its offensive line over the offseason, but Burrow wasn't taking advantage. 

Burrow has taken a step forward in the last two games, albeit against weaker opponents in the Jets and beat-up Dolphins. He's tossed five touchdowns with no turnovers and just three sacks, and his yards per attempt has jumped from 6.0 to 8.4. It's hard to believe that he is as bad as he was through Week 2, but it could be as simple as him not having to face perhaps the two best edge rushers in the league in T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons anymore.

Baltimore does not have a fearsome pass rusher — apologies to Odafe Oweh, who may one day be a star — and ranks last in pass defense this season. Part of that has to do with opponents averaging a league-high 44.3 passes per game against the Ravens, but they've also allowed 7.1 yards per attempt (23rd in the NFL). This could be Burrow's time to shine.

2. Can either team get its rushing attack right?
Part of the reason for Burrow's slow start was the complete lack of a running game. By any measure, the Bengals have been terrible: 31st in yards per attempt (3.8), 31st in EPA per rush (-0.29), and dead last in success rate (32.7 percent). When teams didn't have to respect Joe Mixon and Co., they can defend the Bengals with two high safeties and take away big passes.

The Bengals have accrued fewer rushing yards in each game this season, falling from 133 to 67, although the aerial production has ticked up in recent weeks. If the Bengals are going to turn this phase around, it ought to start soon, since the Ravens have been mediocre against the run, ranking 23rd in yards allowed per attempt (5.0).

While better than Cincinnati, Baltimore also has struggled to run the ball when Lamar Jackson (8.5 ypc) isn't keeping it. Justice Hill has an impressive 125 yards on 19 carries, but he is out for Sunday's game with a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, J.K. Dobbins, Kenyan Drake, and Mike Davis have collectively averaged 2.7 yards per carry. That's quite the drop-off after a similarly banged-up running back room averaged 4.6 last season.

Having a functional running game will be all the more important with leading receiver Rashod Bateman sidelined by a foot injury. Devin Duvernay looks like a breakout star at receiver, but hauling in 92 percent of his targets is not sustainable. Jackson can only prop up the offense by himself for so long, and a more functional running game would go a long way.

3. Can Cincinnati get pressure without blitzing?
Jackson has once again been putting up MVP numbers this season as he leads the NFL in touchdown passes (11) and is third in QBR (79.2). He's always had the talent to put up eye-popping numbers, but he's also benefitted from other circumstances this season.

Jackson has only been pressured on 17.5 percent of dropbacks, which is the sixth-lowest mark among starting QBs and much lower than the 21.4 percent rate he faced heading into this season. Most of the other passers with lower pressure rates (Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Josh Allen, etc.) get the ball out quickly, but Jackson has the fourth-longest average time to throw (3.01 sec.) this season.

Teams have tried bringing extra pass rushers, but when the Dolphins and Patriots blitzed Jackson a combined 32 times in Weeks 2 and 3, he piled up  537 yards with seven touchdowns and just one interception. He's just been too creative so beat that way.

Cincinnati will need to find a way to get after Jackson with just the front four, something the Bengals have had mixed success with this season. Despite a 17.2 percent blitz rate that ranks fifth-lowest, they rank 16th in pressure rate (24.3 percent). Ravens star left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) remains out, which gives Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard a better chance to cause some much-needed havoc.

Final Analysis

These teams look evenly matched, down to some of their similar flaws. Playing at home in prime time will give a small edge to the Ravens, although they appear to be a better team in Week 5 regardless of where the game is played. Baltimore has the edge at quarterback and, barring a surprisingly strong pass-rushing performance, that should be enough.

Prediction: Ravens 28, Bengals 24

*Price as of publication.