One more chance to see who still has a pulse left. On one hand, the Bengals have to go 8-0 to have any shot at the postseason, while on the other, this is a must win for the Ravens as they start the tougher half of their schedule. If Baltimore could only muster a split in their first eight "easy" games, then what should we expect over the second half? After today and next week's game vs. Cleveland, they go on the road to San Diego and then host two straight national TV games (great!) against only the top two teams in the league (Pats & Colts). In order to have any shot at the postseason they're going to need at least one upset of those three to remain in the playoff hunt.
However, it looks pretty dismal for both teams, who are ranked as two of the most disappointing teams of the 2007 season. Cincinnati never seemed to recover from their off the field, off season problems, while Baltimore seemed to be so overconfident it expected the other teams to roll over every time they stepped on the field. While I expected the two Monday night games to be counted in the loss column (Cincy, Pittsburgh), I never expected road losses to both Cleveland and Buffalo. Unfortunately, the Ravens had to find out that both these teams are ranked among this season's pleasant surprises. I expected Baltimore to begin the tough second half of the schedule at 6-2, but now at 4-4, they have a daunting task ahead of them and it all starts with today's game.
In order for the Ravens to leave the field with a win against the Bengals, they'll need to leave it all on the field for four quarters. No more early field goals and lack of production in the Red Zone and then try to hold on while the opposing quarterback picks them apart in the fourth quarter to make a game of it. Baltimore will have to ram Willis McGahee down Cincy's throat, giving him the ball at least 25 carries, if not more. They'll need production from McGahee's backups to spell him abit, as he's returning from a concussion suffered in Monday night's loss. Steve McNair doesn't need to return to the McNair of his MVP season, he just needs to return to the McNair of last season. Make the throws to move the chains, keep the defense from stacking the box and for god's sake, hold onto the damn ball! If not, I'll be hearing the catcalls for Kyle Boller from my Club Level seats in the corner of the end zone.
Cincinnati will need to at least try to establish some sort of running attack. Once they realize that this won't happen (believe me, they already know and are well prepared), they'll go to the no-huddle offense and take to the air. Carson Palmer will look (and probably find) both Chad Johnson and TJ Whosyourmomma for long gains. While Palmer will get the personal stats, he should be forced to pay the price each time he fades back. With Trevor Pryce back in the lineup, the Ravens should be able to muster a strong pass rush and put heat on the QB to get the ball away quickly. This could lead to errant throws and timely interceptions that give the pathetic Ravens offense the short field it needs to put enough points on the board.
The key to the Ravens game is simple and is not limited to McNair's ability to hold onto and throw the ball downfield. The Ravens were missing both starting cornerbacks for the Pittsburgh game and Ben Roethlisberger picked them apart for five first half touchdowns. This week, Samari Rolle is already out and not only is Chris McAlister a gametime decision, so is All Pro safety Ed Reed, courtesy of a jarring block by the Steeler's Hines Ward last week. If all three are out for the game, look for Carson Palmer to have a field day against this depleted secondary. If both McAlister and Reed make it onto the field, it will make a huge difference.
So there it is. I say regardless of McNair's play today, the secondary's effort and injuries are the key to the game. With those guys, the Ravens beat the Bengals 23-17. Without them, Cincinnati gets their first win on the road and writes another chapter in the Ravens horribly disappointing and embarrassing season.
A big salute to all our veterans. Without your sacrifices, we would not have all the freedom that we take for granted each day. Thanks more than you'll ever know!