The Baltimore Ravens travel to Cincinnati on Thursday with an opportunity to claim an early lead in the race for the AFC North title. John Harbaugh’s club will be out for revenge after the Bengals ended their playoff aspirations in heartbreaking fashion last season. Following their beatdown of the Bills, oddsmakers have installed Baltimore as one-point favorites despite the challenges of a divisional road game on a short week.
The Ravens are 6-9 on the road over the last three seasons but 2-0 on Thursday night and 10-5 since 2016 when the point spread is a field goal or less. Marvin Lewis’ Bengals are just 5-12 as an underdog recently, yet 14-8 all-time when hosting the Ravens.
Expect a hard fought battle that will ultimately be determined by these five key matchups:
QB Joe Flacco vs FS Jessie Bates
Flacco has historically struggled against Marvin Lewis’ defense. Through 19 career games, he has thrown more interceptions (23) than touchdowns (19), including 13 picks compared to 10 scores since the Super Bowl. Joe will aim to replicate his efficient showing from Week 1 against a more talented defense.
Cincinnati will likely utilize a heavy dosage of zone coverage against John Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead because beyond William Jackson, their corners are vulnerable. The second-round rookie, Bates, has the range and ball skills to make the veteran quarterback pay for mistakes into his zone. It is unlikely the Ravens will earn the road win if they lose the turnover battle.
CB Marlon Humphrey vs WR A.J. Green
Ravens safeties Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle will be tested by Tyler Eifert, yet A.J. Green is the receiver the Ravens fear most. Green led Cincinnati with 92 yards and score in Week 1 and tortured Baltimore’s defense earlier in his career. Lately, the secondary has bottled up Green for the most part, but he remains one of the top downfield playmakers in the game.
Enter Marlon Humphrey, the second year corner turned in an excellent game against Kelvin Benjamin on Sunday. Using Humphrey to mark John Ross may seem like a better option due to his speed. However, isolating Marlon on Green will allow coordinator Martindale to devote the necessary resources towards damage control against Eifert and pass-catching back Joe Mixon in the middle of the field.
RB Buck Allen vs LB Jordan Evans
Evans serves a crucial role as the Bengals primary coverage linebacker, especially while Vontaze Burfict serves his latest suspension. Evans played well in the December meeting between these divisional rivals, but had an inconsistent season overall. He can be exposed in coverage against tight ends and tailbacks.
Allen is quietly emerging as a reliable chain-mover out of the backfield. Buck appears quicker and more elusive this season and may eventually lead the team in receptions. Assuming the Bengals pass rush comes to play, Baltimore will need Allen in the short passing game to help the offense stay on schedule.
OLB Matthew Judon vs RT Bobby Hart
Judon is aiming to build on his breakout eight sack sophomore campaign. Thus far, he has not flashed as much as some of the other young pass rushers on the depth chart. Yet with Terrell Suggs lined up across from competent tackle Cordy Glenn, Judon will need to help apply pressure on Andy Dalton.
Fortunately, Bobby Hart is merely a below average journeyman. Against Indianapolis, Hart allowed five pressures and two sacks against mediocre competition. Judon can use his motor and strength to bully Hart. The Ravens need a strong showing from their edge rushers, they do not want to allow Dalton to find his rhythm.
RT James Hurst vs DE Carlos Dunlap
On paper, this head-to-head matchup clearly favors Dunlap. The Pro Bowl edge rusher has amassed nine career sacks against Baltimore, including three during their last four contests. He posted a pass deflection, sack and another crushing hit on Andrew Luck in his 2018 debut.
On the other side of the ball, James Hurst has not proven to be an effective tackle throughout his career. And the Ravens cannot afford to slide protection away from All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, as he is fully capable of beating even Marshal Yanda one-on-one. Coordinator Monrhinweg must devise a gamelan that helps Hurst with chip blocks and moves the pocket to prevent Dunlap from causing havoc in the backfield.
Score prediction: Bengals 23, Ravens 20