Bengals (4-11) @ Ravens (11-4)

The Ravens enter their Week 17 finale against Cincinnati with everything still to play for. A win, combined with a Steelers loss in Cleveland, would give the Ravens the AFC’s #2 seed and a first round playoff bye. However, if Pittsburgh takes care of business against the Browns – the most likely scenario – the Ravens’ game against the Bengals will be essentially meaningless. The worst case scenario, which a Steelers’ win would dictate no matter the outcome in Baltimore, is the #5 seed. The New York Jets can’t possibly overtake the Ravens for that spot, by virtue of the Ravens’ Week 1 win in the New Meadowlands.

As Steelers-Browns and Ravens-Bengals are both 1 PM kickoffs, though, the Ravens have no choice but to go into the game treating it as a must-win. Should Pittsburgh build a large lead in Cleveland, John Harbaugh may decide to “call off the dogs” and put some of his subs into the game. The Ravens, along with the 70,000 plus maniacs at the Purple Palace, will be scoreboard-watching intently during Sunday’s game.

At the very least, this game offers the Ravens a chance to “exorcise some demons,” if you will. They have not beaten the Bengals since 2008, having lost three straight in the series, and it’s the Bengals’ Week 2 win over the Ravens that is, in effect, keeping them from having the inside track to the division title and all that comes along with it.

Joe Flacco’s struggles against Cincinnati are well-documented. With a potential Wild Card weekend match up against the Indianapolis Colts looming, it would warm the hearts of Ravens fans – and likely, coaches – to see Joe show that he can overcome some of his previous struggles against the Cover 2 defense. Since his disastrous Week 2 in Cincy, Flacco has the NFL’s second highest passer rating, and has tossed 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

Fortunately, Joe won’t have to do it all himself. The Ravens have reestablished their identity as a run-first football team over the last several weeks, climbing from 19th-ranked to 13th on the ground since the Houston game.  The Bengals, for what it’s worth, have had no luck stopping either the pass or the run in 2010, as their attempt to defend their 2009 AFC North title has been nothing short of pathetic.  They are 4-11, and had lost 10 straight at one point, until winning their last two against Cleveland and San Diego.

Their victory over the Chargers a week ago came as nothing short of a shock to the NFL-watching world.  San Diego still had a playoff berth within their grasp, but were completely dominated at Paul Brown Stadium as the Bengals rolled 34-20.

The hope is that San Diego simply overlooked the Bengals, who were playing without both Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.  “Batman and Robin” will be out again this week, but Carson Palmer, after looking completely washed up for most of the season, looked as good as he has since 2005 last week without dumb and dumber out there running routes.  He completed his first 10 passes on his way to 269 yards, 4 touchdowns, and a career-best 157.2 passer rating.  The Ravens would be wise to not sleep on wideouts Jordan Shipley, Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell, and tight end Jermaine Gresham.  Those four carved up the Chargers in the absence of 81 and 85.

The Ravens’ defense redeemed themselves a week ago against the Browns’ Peyton Hillis, and they’ll look to do the same against the Bengals’ Cedric Benson.  Benson went over the 100-yard mark twice against the Ravens in 2009, but had just 78 yards on 23 carries in the first meeting in 2010.  Benson, after a career resurgence last season, is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry this year.

Some other notes:

  • The Ravens have not lost a season finale since 2005
  • Billy Cundiff needs two touchbacks to tie the NFL record
  • Ray Rice has over 100 yards from scrimmage in 3 straight against the Bengals
  • Anquan Boldin has more than 3 receptions just twice since the Week 8 bye
  • Todd Heap is expected to play, after missing the past 3 games, and all but one play of the Pittsburgh game

If the cards fall right, and Cleveland has a comfortable fourth quarter lead against the Steelers while the Ravens are pounding the Bengals, the atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium around 4 PM Sunday could be better than any we’ve seen in Baltimore in nearly a decade – the equivalent to a playoff win.  If not, no big deal – but damn would it be cool.  Let’s hope.

Ravens 27 Bengals 17


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