The Ravens are on the cusp of snapping a two year postseason drought. Win a Week 17 home game and they are in the dance. Standing in their way are the Bengals, a team that has given Baltimore trouble in recent years.
Cincinnati is aiming to end a disappointing season on a high note in what will likely be Marvin Lewis’ final game as their head coach. Despite fielding the NFL’s 32nd ranked total offense and 20th ranked total defense, the Bengals will have several advantageous individual matchups.
As always, winning the turnover battle will be crucial. The Ravens lead the league with a plus-17 turnover differential, while the Bengals are minus-9. Baltimore will attempt to control the clock by running at a defense that allows 4.2 yards per carry, and force Andy Dalton into mistakes. Cincinnati will aim to make some big plays in the passing game and pressure Joe Flacco with a talented defensive line.
Expect a close contest that may not be decided until late in the fourth quarter. John Harbaugh’s Ravens would not have it any other way.
Five key matchups:
WR Mike Wallace vs CB William Jackson
Wallace has put together a strong second half of the season in a contract year. In the early September showdown against the Bengals, he was held to one catch for eight yards. As their only dependable wideout, the Ravens need to involve Mike early and often to prevent Cincinnati from stacking the box against the run.
Jackson, a former first round selection, has been outstanding in coverage since taking over for the injured Adam Jones. With six pass breakups in his last four games, he has displayed plus ball skills. Flacco must be careful with his passes when targeting Jackson.
RG Matt Skura vs DT Geno Atkins
Skura has blocked remarkably well for a former undrafted rookie playing his first season of professional football. He turned in perhaps his best game of the year last week against Indianapolis. His pull blocks and ability to reach linebackers on the second level has been a major asset for the Ravens 15th ranked rushing offense.
Atkins has been the most productive pass rusher on a Bengals team that features impressive rookie end Carl Lawson and consistent veteran Carlos Dunlap. The six-time Pro Bowler has accumulated nine sacks this season, including a takedown of Flacco in Week 1 after beating Marshal Yanda off the snap. The Ravens should double team Atkins with an extra blocker to prevent him from blowing up plays in the backfield.
OLB Terrell Suggs vs LT Clint Boling
The probable Hall of Famer earned a trip to his seventh Pro Bowl due to his clutch play this year. The majority of Suggs 11 sacks have come in the fourth quarter. He managed a pair of sacks, a forced fumble and a pass deflection that led to an interception against the Bengals in Week 1.
Offensive tackle has been a problematic position for Cincinnati since they allowed Andrew Whitworth to leave in free agency last offseason. Boling was forced to kick outside last week to replace the injured Cedric Ogbuehi, after playing the vast majority of his six seasons at left guard. Boling actually fared reasonably well on the blindside against Detroit. Still, a line that has allowed the 12th most sacks in the league should enable Suggs to pad his total.
CB Brandon Carr vs WR A.J. Green
Carr’s play has regressed as the season has wore on. After starting fast, including a tipped ball interception in Cincinnati in Week 1, Brandon has had some issues in coverage. Particularly against the last elite receiver he faced, Antonio Brown in Week 14. With Jimmy Smith on injured reserve, Carr’s size and strength will be needed to jam the Bengals top wideout.
A.J. has excelled against the Ravens. In his last six games against Baltimore, Green has averaged 113 yards and one touchdown per contest. He posted 74 yards on five catches in Week 1, and has 1,061 yards with eight scores on the season. It will require a team effort to contain the Bengals top playmaker, with extensive use of safety help over the top. Slowing Green would pave the way to a Ravens victory.
SS Tony Jefferson vs TE Tyler Kroft
The Ravens most expensive free agent acquisition has picked up his play down the stretch. He was a standout performer in the two most recent divisional games, against the Steelers and Browns. A stat line of 74 tackles, 2.5 sacks, seven tackles for a loss, a forced fumble and an interception show his versatility. Still, his coverage on tight ends has been inconsistent at best.
Kroft has started every game this season, but has failed to make an impact lately after a strong midseason stretch. Nonetheless, the Ravens have struggled against mediocre tight ends all season. Kroft should have some opportunities due to the attention paid to Green. If Jefferson can effectively neutralize Kroft, Eric Weddle will be free to bracket Green and the inside linebackers can focus on Gio Bernard.
It has been a long, winding regular season for the Ravens. In control of their own destiny, they will be supremely motivated for this game. A veteran laden team should find a way to win this tough divisional battle at home on New Year’s Eve. Ravens 23, Bengals 17