Ravens (11-4) @ Bengals (9-6)

First off, I was curious as to how the numbers from this year’s Week 17 Bengals-Ravens match up compare to the stats going into the same game last season…

/hops in handy-dandy purple time machine, sets date to Week 17 2010

/time machine returns

Well, what I learned was that these teams are pretty much exactly the same statistically as they were a year ago, with a couple differences – the thing that stands out most is the improvement of the Bengals’ defense from a year ago. They weren’t ranked any higher than 19 in any major category last season, and now they’re not below 12 in any of the same metrics. As for the Ravens, I find it interesting that, though the offense and defense have both seemed a bit better than they did last season, they enter Week 17 13th in scoring offense and 3rd in scoring defense – just like they did last year.

All of this is, of course, relevant to nothing really. I was just curious.

Back to the game at hand.

This contest shaped up just the way the NFL wanted it to when they made the schedule – both teams have everything to play for. Cincy doesn’t NEED to win to lock up the final AFC Wild Card spot – but they would need help if they don’t. On the other hand, if they win, they’re in. Pretty simple from that standpoint.

The Ravens need a win to secure the AFC North title and the conference’s #2 overall seed. While again, they don’t NEED to win for that to happen, they would need some help if they lose. And let’s be honest – nobody expects the Cleveland Browns to step up and beat Pittsburgh for Baltimore on Sunday, so a loss would in all likelihood relegate them to the #5 seed and yet another bridesmaid spot in the AFC North race. Baltimore and Pittsburgh could both, depending on what New England does, finish the day as high as the #1 seed or as low as the #5 seed.

It’s a lot simpler for the Ravens, though – win and take next week off, then play the AFC Divisional round at M&T Bank Stadium, where they went a perfect 8-0 in the regular season.

Easier said than done, especially against a hungry Bengals team that gave the Ravens all they could handle back in Week 11.

Cincinnati, though, has gone an unimpressive 1-6 against teams with winning records this season. The Ravens, for their part, have struggled mightily on the road, going 3-4 so far with their only wins against hapless St. Louis and Cleveland, along with a last-minute win in Pittsburgh. Add to that that they’re a mere 2-6 in Southern Ohio since Marvin Lewis showed up, and something will have to give on Sunday.

The Bengals have been less than impressive lately. Since nearly completing a huge comeback in Charm City, they’ve beaten the Browns by a field goal, gotten stomped by Pittsburgh, lost at home to a T.J. Yates-led Texans squad, won in St. Louis by a touchdown, and barely held on at home against John Skelton and the Cardinals.

Again, the same could be said of the Ravens though. Their Thanksgiving night win against San Francisco was something to hang their hat on, but other than that they’ve beaten up on the Browns and Colts, and gotten smoked in San Diego. Last week they looked well on their way to a beatdown of Cleveland, only to let the Browns pull within a single score by the end.

Sunday’s game will likely, as so many do, come down to which team protects their quarterback better while getting after the opposing gunslinger. In Week 11, the Bengals managed only a single sack of Joe Flacco, while the Ravens were unable to get to Andy Dalton at all until the key final minutes, when they brought him down twice. The two defenses come into the game #2 (Ravens) and #3 (Bengals) in sacks, with 47 and 44, respectively.

The problem is that the Bengals do a good job of getting pressure with only four pass rushers, while the Ravens tend to need to dial up blitzes to get home. That’s exactly the kind of defense that gives the Ravens’ offense fits, so they’ll need to protect Joe like they were able to the last time these teams met. Not helping matters is the uncertain status of Marshal Yanda (ribs, thigh) for Sunday’s game. Hopefully the extra day of rest will be enough to get him back on the field, otherwise Andre Gurode will be counted on to stand up against the Bengals’ stout front.

Ray Rice had a good day statistically against Cincy last time around, with 104 yards on 20 carries. Fifty-nine of those yards were on one play though, and if you take away that gain, he averaged only 2.4 yards per carry. Marvin Lewis has done a good job of keeping Rice “in the box” so to speak in the past, so unless Cam Cameron has something special up his sleeve for this week (highly doubtful), I’d expect similar struggles for the Ravens’ running game and underneath passing attack.

It was Torrey Smith who the Bengals seemed to severely underestimate, as he pulled in 6 passes for 165 yards. They won’t be nearly as dismissive of the rookie out of Maryland this week, and with Anquan Boldin missing from the other side, should have no problems doubling Torrey all over the field. It will fall on the Ravens’ tight ends to represent themselves much better than they did against Cleveland last Saturday, when Ed Dickson, despite catching a touchdown, had two key drops and Dennis Pitta was never even targeted. While it would be nice for Tandon Doss or LaQuan Williams – or, for crying out loud, LEE EVANS – to make an impact, it’s probably a bit unrealistic to expect much from those guys at this point; look for lots of two-TE sets from Baltimore on Sunday.

The Bengals will counter with their own rookie wideout, A.J. Green. Green was absent from the Ravens’ Week 11 win, and could still be dealing with some issues from a shoulder injury suffered against St. Louis. The young phenom had only 2 catches for 25 yards last week, but is already over 1000 yards for the season on 63 catches and has hauled in 7 touchdowns. Let’s hope he’s still not at 100%, but the Ravens’ secondary will have their hands full regardless. After watching the trouble they had in San Diego, it’s tough to be too confident, that’s for sure.

And that’s not to mention fellow wideout Jerome Simpson, who had 8 catches for 152 yards against B’More last time, or tight end Jermaine Gresham, who pretty much had what could have been a key touchdown stolen from him. Chuck Pagano had better have a little better plan for these guys than he did for the Chargers, or even than he did the last time Cincy and Baltimore clashed.

While the Bengals will by no means roll over on Sunday, I’m basing any confidence I may have on Cincy crumbling under the pressure of what amounts to a playoff game for both squads. The Ravens have won four playoff games over the past three seasons – all on the road – and will treat this game as such. The Bengals have proven themselves to be just a tad below the level of playoff-caliber opposition this season, and the Ravens should be able to continue that trend.

Cincy will be a player in the AFC North for years to come with their young core. This year though, the Ravens manage to hold them off to sweep the division and bring home John Harbaugh’s first AFC North crown.

And if they don’t….GO BROWNS!

Ravens 24 Bengals 23


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