With a win today over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens can claim sole possession of first place in the AFC North, despite obvious flaws in their trend of being unable to beat lesser teams on the road after a big win over quality teams. Three times the Ravens have gone on the road after hugely important victories, only to be slammed back down to earth with head-scratching defeats. Regardless, Baltimore is still responsible for its own destiny, as no team in the AFC North, much less the entire conference, has shown it is any better than they are, nor has any single team distanced itself from the others.
Three teams in the AFC North have three losses, the least of any in the AFC along with the Houston Texans (AFC South) and New England Patriots (AFC East). A victory over the Bengals gives the Ravens a 3-0 division record and drops Cincinnati to 1-2 along with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Luckily for the Ravens, they have showed they can not only respond after a humiliating defeat and their home record this year is 4-0 and they have one of the best records in the conference in their own stadium.
In 2010, the Ravens slit their two-game season series with the Bengals, each winning at home. In their first meeting of last season, QB Joe Flacco had one of his worst games of his career up to that point when he threw four interceptions in a 15-10 loss. The Ravens got their revenge in the last game of the regular season with a 13-7 win on their way to the playoffs while Cincinnati went home after a disappointing 4-12 season.
The free fall of the Bengals appeared to be continuing when their veteran QB, Carson Palmer demanded to be traded or threatened to retire by refusing to report to the team when training camps opened this summer. Cincinnati got rid of their star wide receiver, Chad Ochocinco, whose antics got tiresome and the team decided not to have to deal with it any longer.
In their place, two rookies were thrust form the 2011 NFL Draft. QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green had excellent college careers but both were thought to be in over their heads by being put in the direct line of fire right off the bat. However, the two found their chemistry and clicked from the beginning and the surprising Bengals had won five in a row before losing last week at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers, falling to 6-3 but still firmly in the playoff hunt.
Many said that Dalton would fail against the tougher competition that both the Steelers and Ravens presented and while they did lose last week, it certainly wasn't a poor performance by Dalton that was solely responsible for the defeat. Perhaps more than the loss of the game will be the probable loss of Green to a knee injury that has his status for the Ravens game doubtful at best.
That loss removes the most significant long ball threat form the passing arsenal of the Bengals and while they still have a decent receiving corp and a punishing ground game, their offense will be challenged to move the ball against a tough Ravens defense that will bring the pressure that the Bengals felt last week in their loss to the Steelers.
Although the Ravens may be without LB Ray Lewis, the loss of Green to the Bengals will hurt the more than the possible loss of Lewis, as the Ravens defense is still a formidable threat based on all the other playmakers on defense. Whoever steps into Ray's role will have enough stars around him that the Bengal swill be surprised if they think one player makes that big of a difference on this side of the ball for Baltimore.
Offensively, QB Joe Flacco seems to respond after a bad game with a solid one and his home performance greatly dwarfs his road ones. The knock on the Ravens is that they seem to play up or down to their level of competition. Like them or not, the Bengals are definitely in the category of tough competition, s these teams have a physical, close battle almost every time they play each other. Expect another close game, but the combination of the home field advantage and trend of responding to losses with big wins, along with the poor timing of Cincinnati's loss of A.J. Green, will make the possible vacancy of the familiar 52 in the middle of the Ravens defense inconsequential to the outcome of this game.