With only seven weeks left in the regular season, the race for the AFC North and the playoffs is heating up. Baltimore and Cincinnati will face off Sunday as two of the teams competing to make the playoffs as the sixth seed. Pittsburgh has the opportunity to further pull away in the division while a much awaited bye week finally arrives for Cleveland.
Baltimore Ravens (4-5)
With Joe Flacco sidelined with a hip injury, the stage has been set for rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson’s debut. At 4-5, the season likely hinges on this game.
Luckily for Baltimore, wide receiver A.J. Green will miss the game for the Bengals. Green scored three touchdowns on the Ravens defense in Week 2, leading Cincinnati to a 34-23 victory. Baltimore will have to shift their focus to Tyler Boyd, who has stepped up in Green’s absence with 685 receiving yards and five touchdowns on the season. Still, running back Joe Mixon should remain the focus of the Ravens game plan. Mixon has established himself as one of the best young running backs in the NFL, both on the ground and in the passing game. Quarterback Andy Dalton utilized quick passes to fend off Baltimore’s pass rush last time, so forcing him to hold onto the ball will be key.
On offense, the run game will be paramount. When Jackson has handed the ball off this season, the results on the ground have been far superior. Defenses are forced to respect Jackson’s elite speed, which frees up the running backs. The offensive game plan will likely consist of protecting the football and grinding the game out on the ground. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will not place too much on Jackson’s shoulders in his first game. In the passing game, tight ends Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst will have to take advantage of the Bengal’s injury depleted linebacking corps in the middle of the field.
While a win will keep the Ravens alive in the playoff hunt, a loss would most certainly signal missing the playoffs for the fourth-straight year.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-4)
Coming off of a 51-14 clobbering from the New Orleans Saints, Cincinnati now travels to face Baltimore in a pivotal game.
While there has been no official announcement as to who the Ravens will start at quarterback on Sunday, the Bengals most likely assumed it would be Jackson and have game planned accordingly. Jackson adds a dangerous new element to Baltimore’s offense that Cincinnati has not yet had to deal with. Jackson’s speed and shiftiness is the ultimate nightmare for defenses, especially one which is currently ranked 31st in the NFL after firing their defensive coordinator. The Bengals will have to contain Jackson in the pocket at all costs and force him to win the game with his arm, which he has yet to prove he can do at the NFL level.
Without Green on offense, Boyd will have to carry the load through the air. If the Ravens take away Boyd, someone else will have to step up, such as wide receiver John Ross. Ross has yet to truly make an impact for Cincinnati’s offense after being drafted in the first round in 2017. The offense will go as Mixon goes, however. If Baltimore can limit Mixon’s impact, then the game will fall on Dalton’s shoulders without Green.
Improving to 6-4 will put the Bengals in a good position to make the playoffs, while a loss could kill any hopes of making it this year.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2-1)
Winners of five-straight games, the Steelers now travel to Jacksonville to face the struggling Jaguars.
Jacksonville has taken a massive step backwards from their 2017 form, currently sitting at 3-6. Quarterback Blake Bortles has struggled immensely and their elite defense has been anything but this year. Bortles is one of the most turnover-prone quarterbacks in the league which benefits Pittsburgh’s top pass rush greatly. The Steelers defense has improved from one of the worst units in the NFL to eighth in total defense.
Pittsburgh’s offense has flourished with the emergence of running back James Conner. Conner has filled in for absent Le’Veon Bell, rushing for 771 yards and 10 touchdowns as well as notching 387 receiving yards and a touchdown through the air. Jacksonville’s defense has fallen back down to earth since last season when they forced quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into multiple turnovers in their regular season matchup. Look for Conner to have another big game this Sunday.
Improving to 7-2-1 will give the Steelers a firm grasp on the division lead.