By Rich Bergeron
It’s a battle with implications that could ultimately determine who claims first place in the AFC North this Sunday with the 5-2 Baltimore Ravens coming to Cincinnati looking to avenge a season-opening loss on their own home field to the Bengals. The Bengals are 3-2-1, so a win will take the Ravens down a peg and put Cincinnati much closer to the top of the division.
The Ravens quietly assembled a respectable 5-2 record by beating every team they faced since that Bengals loss, or at least every team other than the now 5-2 Indianapolis Colts. The Colts edged out the Ravens by a score of 20-13 in week five to foul up what could have been a six-game win streak for the Ravens. Other than a two-point win over the Cleveland Browns in week three, all of Baltimore’s wins have been one-sided and dominant. The Bengals are the one major obstacle facing the Ravens before their bye in week 11, so this win is crucial.
The Bengals started hot and then collapsed in recent weeks, failing to notch a win since going into their own week four bye with a 33-7 slaughter of the Tennessee Titans. It doesn’t help that Receiver A.J. Green (17 receptions, 314 yards, 2 TDs) is injured and won’t play this week. Cornerback Leon Hall is also questionable with a bad back. Though the Bengals rank 16th in average passing (241.8) and rushing yards (111.5) per game, they are at the bottom of the barrel in average yards allowed in both categories. They rank 27th in the NFL in average passing yards allowed (270.3) and 30th in average rushing yards allowed (146.3).
The Bengals will look to Quarterback Andy Dalton (121-189, 1,375 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs, 5 sacks) to make the most significant impact this week. Dalton will face a Bengals defense that is 24th against the pass, allowing an average of 258.4 passing yards per game. Though the Bengals backfield has seven rushing scores, Baltimore is 7th in the league against the run, holding opponents to an average of 87.4 yards per game. Dalton will have to look for someone to step up for Green, and he’s sure to target Mohamed Sanu (30 catches, 408 yards, 3 TDs) early and often. Sanu currently leads the offense in Yards After Catch (197) and first down grabs (19).
Baltimore’s passing game is ranked 9th in the NFL, all thanks to another excellent season being put together by Quarterback Joe Flacco (156-245, 1,854 yards, 14 TDs, 5 INTs, 8 sacks). Flacco is aided tremendously by the breakout rushing of Justin Forsett (87 carries, 503 yards, 3 TDs), who is complemented by the combined 4 touchdowns contributed by Lorenzo Taliaferro and Bernard Pierce, who have 99 carries for nearly 400 combined yards. Forsett’s team-leading 5.8 yards-per-carry average has his team ranked 7th in average rushing yards per game (131.4).
So far this season, Baltimore’s outscored their opponents by 89 points, better than any other team in the league. Though the Ravens lost seven of their last nine games in Cincinnati, this week may be a different story. The Bengals are coming off a particularly embarrassing 27-0 drubbing by the Colts, and they are just not playing inspiring football lately.
Prediction: Baltimore wins this one 34-10 thanks to a pick 6 from their defense and a career day from Flacco, who throws for over 300 yards and three scores. The backfield and the field goal unit split the other scores. Dalton and the Bengals feel just like they did against the Patriots in week 5 after this one: outgunned and understaffed on the offensive side of the ball and just plain outplayed on defense.