Finally, the offseason and preseason are over and now the season begins. All across America, football fans will flock to stadiums to root their home teams on to victory. TV sets will be tuned to the game and nationwide, half the football fans will rejoice while the other half curses and frowns. As far as I'm concerned, all is well in the world (uh,...not quite).
Here in Baltimore, the Cincinnati Bengals invade M&T Bank Stadium for the first game of the NFL season. The Bengals have enjoyed pretty good success against the Ravens, winning six of the last seven, including three of the last four in Baltimore. The Ravens seem to play other teams tough at home, but for whatever reason, pull out the stinkers against the Bengals. It all seemed to start a few years ago, when Carson Palmer brought the Bengals back from a 17 point fourth quarter deficit to victory here. Since then, the streak mentioned above started and the Ravens hope to put a fork in it starting today.
The Ravens were the final team in the league to name a starting QB, but that wasn't their fault, as they had to wait to see who would be the Last Man Standing (by the way, I took the hated Steelers in my 'Last Man Standing' suicide pool!). Rookie Joe Flacco will start and deservedly so, as he was the only Ravens QB who lasted the entire preseason healthy, and actually outplayed the others along the way. Journeyman Todd Bouman will back him up, at least for now, or until Troy Smith regains the 15-20 pounds he lost in his bout with a rare tonsil infection and gets into football shape. Head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have enough confidence in Flacco to give him a gameplan that is relatively simple but not so basic to play into the hands of the drooling Bengals, who will throw the bus at him every chance they get. Expect the Bengals to blitz on obvious passing downs, and to put eight in the box on running plays to slow the rushing game down and force the Ravens to pass much more than they want to.
Injuries originally ruled the headlines in preseason but should not be an excuse at this point. The Ravens will be a lot closer to full strength than anyone would have guessed, with Ed Reed looking the most doubtful. Everyone else is close enough that they are planning to play, including Willis McGahee, Todd Heap, Chris McAlister, Samari Rolle and the entire offensive line, including recent addition, former Bengal and All Pro Willie Anderson.
If the Ravens take the field and stay healthy throughout the game, I fully expect the Ravens to win this game, even though they are a home underdog to the Bengals. There are a bunch of matchups that can be delved into, but to me there is only one that will make or break this game. Everything else is pretty consistent and given. The Bengals will not be able to run against the Ravens. The Ravens offense will not put a lot of points on the board. The Bengals defense is one of the worst in the league, so the Ravens should be able to move the ball, and they will put points on the board as long as they don't turn the ball over.
No, those issues ae not the key to this game. It all comes down to one basic thing: If the Ravens defense puts a good pass rush on Bengals QB Carson Palmer and not only sacks him, but hits him hard and often, they will win the game. Palmer will have to set up and release the ball quicker than he wants, and that will lead to interceptions that the Ravens offense needs to gain the short field and put even more points on the scoreboard. Conversely, if the Ravens pass rush fails to materialize, then Palmer will sit back there, waiting for 85 and TJ to get open and pick us apart all day for an easy Bengals victory.
Very simple, good pass rush, we win; poor pass rush, we lose.
I'm banking that with a healthy Trevor Pryce along with T-Sizzle and Bart Scott, we will rebound to start the season off on a high note and get to Palmer repeatedly, battering him and making that shield he will wear to protect his broken nose an unfortunate necessity and facesaving device. I will be there early in my Club Seats cheering and yelling like one of the 70,000 idiots for our Ravens, watching my predictions come true as the Ravens prevail in a close one.