In preparing for Sunday Week 18 regular season finale, Cincy Jungle’s Anthony Cosenza and I sat down for our second small Q&A for one another’s publications.
1. Since losing to the Ravens back in Week 5, the Bengals have won nine games, including a seven-game win streak. Was the Ravens game a catalyst for this squad? What changed for this Bengals squad to become a dominant force?
I know a lot of people who cover specific teams and/or root for them like to feel like they were the crux for another team responding as a “wake-up call” or whatever, but in this case, yes, this is absolutely true. In the first few weeks of the season, Cincinnati was in a funk for a number of reasons (four new starters on the offensive line, Joe Burrow having a late summer appendectomy, etc.), but none were more prevalent than defenses adjusting to them from the year prior and playing a lot of two-deep safety looks.
This made Cincinnati transition in two ways on offense. The first is to exercise patience and take a little more of what defenses gave them, so to speak. Utilizing short and intermediate passing while taking the occasional shot downfield when it’s there, rather than forcing it. Additionally, Tee Higgins (he didn’t play much in the first game against the Ravens) has asserted himself as one of the best receivers in the league, even winning on deep balls because of his catch radius and size. The Baltimore game also showed how Hayden Hurst can be most effectively utilized in this offense (we knew he was capable, it was more about getting him the ball).
It also made the team find more creative ways to gain positive yardage on the ground. The wide zone run game wasn’t working for them early on, so they’ve moved to more RPO runs and “wham” plays. This transition also began to take place in the first game against the Ravens. They took what worked in that contest and ran with it to a high level of success.
2. Wide receiver Tee Higgins played only 10 snaps against the Ravens in their first meeting before reaggravating an ankle injury. Now, he’s healthy and expected to play. What kind of impact do you expect from him in this game? Or, what does having him back in the lineup change for this offense?
I expect him to work the middle of the field effectively to extend drives, as that’s one of the things he does best. Baltimore will likely bracket coverage to Ja’Marr Chase, and while I still think he’ll get his to some extent, Higgins will also go deep a couple of times where Burrow will throw a back shoulder jump ball to allow him to use his basketball skills to play keep away from the defensive back.
In last year’s first contest, Baltimore did an outstanding job in the first half against Higgins, limiting him to seven catches on 15 targets overall. This was due to extremely physical play by defensive backs and I’m sure that’s their plan in this one against 85.
However, in the rematch last year, Higgins torched the Ravens with 12 catches for 194 yards and two scores. While I don’t think he’ll get those gaudy numbers this time around, I’d guess a meeting in the middle of those two stat lines from last year, still providing a sizable impact. Everybody talks about Chase and rightfully so, but Higgins is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
3. What are the best ways for the Ravens to attack this Bengals defense? Where would they find success? Also, what should they avoid?
It may prove difficult this week with the lack of Lamar Jackson and potentially Tyler Huntley, but their rushing attack can provide fits for any defense. Their multi-headed attack of a nimble quarterback, combined with J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and others provide issues, particularly when it’s a bit of a guessing game of who has the ball at times.
With the backup quarterback situation, Baltimore has to try and simultaneously pound and dupe the Bengals with the run game. Complicating things for the Ravens on that front though is D.J. Reader being back in the lineup at nose tackle, who is one of the best run-stoppers in the league.
4. On Friday, the NFL owners passed changes to playoff seeding following the suspension of the Bills-Bengals game. The ruling impacted the Bengals and Ravens. What has been the reaction, if any, from the Bengals team? How are the fans reacting to the changes voted on and passed by the league owners?
Obviously, everyone’s primary concern and focus has been with Damar Hamlin’s health. Thankfully, he’s been making significant strides of progress on the health front, so that’s amazing news.
I think most Bengals fans are frustrated with the ruling of things. The coin toss for a home playoff game, even with a divisional crown to their name, seems a bit unfair in some capacity. Really, though I think most would be able to live and deal with that if the pendulum swung both ways for Cincinnati.
It basically feels that the incentive to win games (particularly Week 18) is to avoid “punishment”, rather than greatly advancing their seeding and home field advantage—especially when it comes to circumstances completely out of their control and when they largely controlled their own destiny to get to the No. 2 or No. 1 seeds (more unlikely, obviously). And, now, instead of either resting players this week (if they wanted to and had won last week), they are now forced to essentially go on a 12-game win streak, were they to win the Super Bowl (currently at seven, five more beyond that).
Regardless, this team has been doubted throughout all of last year and into this one, so it’s more of the “us against the world” mentality in the locker room, I’d think. They have great leaders and high character guys on the team, so I assume they respond well, despite everything that has transpired over the past handful of days and the bottom line is you have to play and beat who is in front of you, regardless of venue.
5. DraftKings has moved the line on this game a bunch throughout the week, but as of right now, it sits at Bengals -9. Do you agree with this line? Where would you put it if you were an oddsmaker?
While I never pride myself on being a betting expert, I would stay away from this game at all costs. Between the uncertainty at quarterback for Baltimore, the whirlwind week the Bengals have experienced and a potential home playoff game that is up for grabs after it was seemingly out of reach for one of the teams, anything goes here.
Will Cincinnati play angry and take it to the Ravens? Will Baltimore’s defense and a quarterback the Bengals haven’t studied much bring problems? I think the Bengals win, but I always get wary of a two-possession line in the NFL, much less in a divisional game.