Earlier this season I had looked at the schedule and pegged this game as one of those typical road losses for the Ravens. Not now. The Ravens have remained healthy this season, especially on defense and even more specifically in the secondary. Chris McAlister has returned to his shut-down form, Samari Rolle has his health issues under control and newcomer Fabian Washington is beginning to live up to the expectations when the Raiders took him in the first round of the 2005 draft. The pass rush is back, thanks to Trevor Pryce, which has freed up T-Sizzle and Bart Scott to wreck havoc on the opposing teams' signal callers. Ray-Ray is taking heads off sideline to sideline and Ed Reed is roaming the secondary like the NFL Defensive Player of the Year he was just a couple of years ago. All is well with the NFL's #1 defense in 2008!
Now the offense. Yes, it is much better, more consistent and more balanced than it was under the so-called "offensive guru" Brian Billick. Of course, if I coached Daunte' Culpepper throwing to Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed, I'd have the moniker of "offensive guru" as well! I guess Kyle Boller throwing to Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap doesn't allow you to keep that title, eh Brian?
Anyway, back to these Ravens. While Joe Flacco was drafted to be the future of the Ravens, he is still not the present. Troy Smith has infused a ton of energy and enthusiasm to this offense. The revamped, young and surprisingly cohesive offensive line has made their blocks and given him just enough protection to be effective, both in the pocket and on the run when he has to. He's gobbled up huge chunks of yardage and tired out defenses with his scrambling and throwing on the run. While small in sze for a prototypical NFL QB, he has almost perfect throwing mechanics, holds the ball up high and releases it overhead better than most veterans, negating the size issue. He's hitting the short and medium range passes and mixes in a bomb when needed, sometimes even successfully, to keep the secondary from creeping up too far to the line of scrimmage. Todd Heap has remained healthy and gives the offense another dimension, one that was lacking in 2007 due to his lingering injury. The rookie wideouts are also contributing with their hands and speed as additional targets for Troy Smith.
Willis McGahee has all but made Ravens fans say "Jamal who?" He is one of the top three in rushing yards in the NFL this season and might be even higher without the success of rookie Ray Rice's contributions when giving him a breathing spell. All in all, this team is even better at this point of the season than they have been all year. While still not a Super Bowl contender, the decision not to go after the veteran Brett Favre has proven to be the right choice. Smith's progress and the learning curve of rookie Joe Flacco would not be at this level if they were buried on the sidelines. Even if this team is not ready for the big game, it is definitely a contender for a playoff spot, and could be a dangerous team with the type of defense that no one would want to face in the post season.
The Bengals, on the other hand, are on the opposite course. The off season distractions have run over into the regular season and this has led to near mutiny behavior in the locker room, on the field and in the news. Defensively, the Bungles are still the same team, giving up yardage and points by the bucketful. Offensively, they still get their yards via Carson Palmer's arm to the ever productive Chad Johnson and the under-rated TJ Whosyourmomma. However, they must now rely on outscoring their opponents and that just doesn't fly over the course of the season.
It doesn't fly this week as well, even in front of the increasingly frustrated Cincinnati fans. The Ravens harass and beat Carson Palmer repeatedly, stop the running game cold, and while they do give up a couple of TD tosses to Johnson and TJ, it's not enough to overcome the turnovers and lack of defense as the Ravens outscore the Bengals for a well deserved road victory.
Ravens: 27 Bengals: 17
Season Record: 7-5