The Bengals failed to really shake up the AFC North last weekend. Fortunately for Marvin Lewis' club, Cincinnati's schedule quickly offers up a second chance.
That is what the Baltimore Ravens are looking for again after another subpar effort against an inferior opponent.
Sunday's winner at M&T Bank Stadium won't just have bragging rights between the 6-3 clubs: a share of first place with idle Pittsburgh in the ultra-tight division is also on the line.
The Ravens continue to be one of the more baffling teams in the NFL. On one hand, Baltimore has already bested 7-3 Pittsburgh twice this season. However, the Ravens' three losses have come against the Titans, Jaguars and most recently, the Seahawks.
The combined record of those clubs? 11-16 and all three teams were under .500 when they beat the Ravens.
Baltimore gutted out a 23-20 victory in Pittsburgh on Nov. 6 to record its second straight victory, but came away from its cross-country trip to Seattle with a disappointing 22-17 defeat. The loss dropped the Ravens into a second- place tie with the Bengals after the Steelers picked up a win over Cincinnati on Sunday as well.
Joe Flacco attempted a career-high 52 passes versus Seattle and his final one was an 11-yard touchdown strike to tight end Ed Dickson with 5:52 left in the game to cut Baltimore's deficit to five. However, Seattle went 72 yards on 12 plays afterwards to run out the clock.
"It's not easy to win in the NFL, and every team is good," said Flacco. "Every week you have to take as a new week, and a good team, and these guys came in and played pretty well today."
The Ravens do have several trends working in their favor for this matchup. They have won six straight and 14 of their last 15 games at home and are 14-4 in games following a loss under head coach John Harbaugh. That includes a victory in 11 straight after a defeat, the longest active streak in the NFL.
That should matter little to the Bengals, who will only be concerned with rebounding from their 24-17 setback to Pittsburgh. Cincinnati trailed by two touchdowns with 3:37 remaining in the first quarter before going on a 17-3 run. However, the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall scored a nine-yard touchdown with 1:55 to go in the third and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was picked off twice in the fourth quarter, including once in Pittsburgh territory with 2:27 to play.
"We didn't play our best game, and we were in this game the whole time," said Dalton. "There are some positive things to take away from the loss, but it hurts to lose. There were some good things to take away, but we're going to do everything we can to get ready and get back next week."
Cincinnati had won five in a row before the loss, its longest winning streak since it opened its 1988 Super Bowl season 6-0, and saw top cover corner Leon Hall exit the game with a torn Achilles injury that will end his season. Hall had never missed a game, playing in all 73 contests over his five-year career.
"It's unfortunate, obviously, with Leon's injury because he's been so durable," said Lewis. "I think he's probably one of the most durable guys I've been around."
Rookie wide receiver A.J. Green also missed a large portion of Sunday's loss with a knee injury and will be a game-time decision after an MRI revealed a bone bruise.
Cincinnati is 4-1 on the road this season, putting it in position to challenge its best season road record in franchise history of 6-2, set in 1981 and matched in 2005.
Baltimore holds a 16-14 edge in its all-time series with Cincinnati and ended a stretch of three straight losses to the Bengals with a 13-7 victory at M&T Bank Stadium in the 2010 regular-season finale. Cincinnati posted a 15-10 home win over the Ravens during Week 2 of last season and swept the 2009 series between the divisional foes, which included a 17-14 decision in Baltimore that year. The Ravens took both matchups in the 2008 set, including a 17-10 verdict at M&T Bank Stadium.
Lewis is 9-7 against the Ravens, the team for which he served as defensive coordinator from 1996 through 2001 and helped the franchise to a win in Super Bowl XXXV. Harbaugh has gone 3-3 against both Lewis and Cincinnati during his time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Much of the focus on Cincinnati's game last weekend versus Pittsburgh was how the rookie tandem of Dalton and Green would fare against the Steelers' talented defense. The results were mixed. Dalton (1866 passing yards, 14 TD, 9 INT) threw for just 170 yards on 15-of-30 passing, throwing a pair of touchdown passes in addition to his interceptions. However, he wasn't sacked and the Bengals have allowed just two sacks in their last four games and only 13 on the season, tied for third-fewest in the league. Green (41 receptions, 6 TD) appeared to be on his way to a solid day, but his knee injury limited him to just one catch. However, that grab was a leaping 36-yard touchdown grab over two defenders and he still leads all rookies in receptions, receiving yards (635) and receiving touchdowns. With Green out, fellow first-year wideout Andrew Hawkins led the team with five grabs for 56 yards, while tight end Jermaine Gresham (29 receptions, 4 TD) had four for 23 yards and a touchdown. Cincinnati, which ranks 24th in total offense at 312.1 yards per game, got 109 yards rushing versus the Steelers. Starter Cedric Benson (593 rushing yards, 2 TD) accounted for 57 of those on 15 carries, while Bernard Scott (223 rushing yards, 1 TD) added 38 on seven attempts. Wide receiver Andre Caldwell (29 receptions, 2 TD), who is tied for second on the club in catches, had a career-high seven grabs for 94 yards in a game at Baltimore last season, while Jerome Simpson (26 receptions, 2 TD) made a career-best 12 catches the last time he faced the Ravens.
The Bengals will face another talented defense this weekend in the Ravens, who rank third in total defense (284.7 YPG) and points allowed per game (16.9), and also feature a pair of stars who have put up solid numbers in their career versus Cincinnati. Linebacker Ray Lewis (68 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) has five interceptions for 120 yards in this matchup, while safety Ed Reed (33 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) has picked off eight passes and returned them 303 yards versus the Bengals. Baltimore did hold Seattle to 327 yards of offense a week ago, but did yield a 100-yard rusher in Marshawn Lynch, who posted 109 yards on 32 carries and picked up some big first downs late in the game. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (41 tackles, 3 sacks) led the Ravens with 11 tackles and inside linebacker Jameel McClain (38 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) had nine. Lewis chipped in eight stops, while pass-rush specialist Paul Kruger (8 tackles, 4.5 sacks) recorded the club's only sack and 27th of the season. Cornerback Lardarius Webb (47 tackles, 2 INT) is one of three Ravens with two interceptions on the season and has taken one back for a touchdown. Linebacker Jarret Johnson (35 tackles, 2.5 sacks) will set a Ravens record for most consecutive starts this weekend with 74.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Baltimore saw its top weapon in running back Ray Rice limited to only 27 yards on five carries versus the Seahawks, but got the shifty playmaker involved other ways. Rice (559 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 8 total TD) was targeted 10 times by Flacco and caught eight passes for 54 yards. He also threw a one- yard touchdown pass to Dickson in the second quarter, the first of his career, and is averaging 101.7 total yards from scrimmage per game in his career versus the Bengals. Flacco (2306 passing yards, 10 TD, 7 INT) finished with 255 passing yards with an interception and targeted Dickson (40 receptions, 3 TD) 14 times. The tight end hauled in 10 of those for 79 yards with a pair of scores, all career highs. Fellow tight end Dennis Pitta (25 receptions) posted four catches for 49 yards, but Flacco had trouble hooking up with No. 1 wideout Anquan Boldin. After making seven receptions in each of his previous two games, Boldin (43 receptions, 2 TD) ended with just a pair of catches versus the Seahawks despite nine targets. The Ravens are averaging 25.0 points per game this year and their 225 points on the season is the club's highest total ever through nine games.
The Bengals rank second in the league against the run (86.8 YPG) and fifth in total defense (304.2 YPG), but their 10th-ranked pass defense figures to get a test without Hall. Cincinnati still has a pair of playmakers in its secondary in cornerback Nate Clements (36 tackles) and safety Reggie Nelson (55 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), while Kelly Jennings (11 tackles) figures to step in for the injured Hall (32 tackles, 2 INT). Cincinnati will also hope that corner Adam Jones can play after he missed last week's game with hamstring injury. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap (15 tackles, 3 sacks) also missed the Steelers game with a hamstring issue, but that didn't stop the Bengals from getting a season high-tying five sacks from six different players. End Robert Geathers (15 tackles) led the charge with 1 1/2 sacks, while end Frostee Rucker (20 tackles, 4 sacks) and defensive tackle Geno Atkins (23 tackles, 4.5 sacks) were each credited with a full sack. In all, 12 players have accounted for Cincinnati's 25 sacks this season. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (45 tackles) made seven tackles in his return from a three-game absence caused by a severely sprained ankle, while linebacker Manny Lawson (24 tackles) led the team with 10 tackles. Hall picked off Cincinnati's fourth pass of the season before his exit.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The first team to blink could be the one that losses. Lewis cut his teeth with Baltimore and since taking over as Cincinnati's head coach in 2003, the Bengals and Ravens are tied for third in the NFL with a plus-35 turnover differential.
Cincinnati's defense will be asked to hold serve when Baltimore gets into enemy territory. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed twice from over 50 yards last week, making him 1-for-6 in that situation this year. Harbaugh will likely think twice before attempting a long field goal in this one.
Flacco threw and threw and threw last weekend and that trend could continue in this game due to Hall's injury. Not only will Jennings and Jones need to step up, but so will cornerback Brandon Ghee, a second-year Wake Forest product who was promoted from the practice squad. Safety Chris Crocker could also shift to corner if needed.
Cincinnati-Baltimore in November didn't have too many clubs excited prior to the start of the season, but low and behold it has morphed into a big game for both squads. The Ravens and Bengals are looking to rebound from tough losses last week, though Baltimore may have the most sense of urgency as it tries not to squander its series sweep of Pittsburgh that could be key to a division title. The two teams are getting their first look at each other in 2011, but Hall's injury and a trip to tough M&T Bank Stadium may be too much for Cincinnati to overcome.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 20, Bengals 17