Though the Baltimore Ravens have proven in the past they can go on the road and win in the playoffs, the team sure wouldn't mind having the opportunity to try to continue its unprecedented 2011 success at home during the postseason.
The Ravens enter Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium for a high-stakes Week 17 showdown with the division-rival Bengals seeking to capture a first AFC North title and opening-round playoff bye since 2006, while their upstart opponent will be vying for an invite to the conference tournament not many would have expected at the outset of this season when it takes the field for Sunday's pivotal showdown.
Baltimore has reached the postseason in each of head coach John Harbaugh's three seasons and will be doing so again in 2011, though each of those previous trips came as a Wild Card entry in which the team was forced to play on the road. The Ravens have an opportunity to stay home this time around, as a victory on Sunday or a loss by current AFC North co-leader Pittsburgh in its regular-season finale at Cleveland would give Harbaugh's club the division championship by virtue of a head-to-head sweep of the Steelers.
The AFC North representative would be the conference's No. 2 seed for the upcoming playoffs unless current front-runner New England loses to Buffalo on Sunday, which would then vault either the Ravens or Steelers into the top slot provided they win this week.
"We have had a lot of games where we have to go win in order to really put us where we want to, and it's just another one of those," Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco said of Sunday's clash. "It's going to be against a good team, a division opponent, a team that's fighting for the playoffs themselves. We're going to have go in there and play a really good game to get a win."
Baltimore, which has triumphed four times on the road in the postseason under the Harbaugh/Flacco combination, would certainly have some additional incentive to stay home for this year's playoffs. Last week's 20-14 decision over Cleveland gave the Ravens a perfect 8-0 regular-season record at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time in franchise history, with five of those wins coming by double-digit margins.
A Ravens loss coupled with Pittsburgh getting past the lowly Browns would slide Baltimore into the No. 5 spot and set up an unwanted trip to either Denver or Oakland in next weekend's Wild Card Round, and that scenario would also earn the surprising Bengals the sixth and final seed and a First-Round matchup at AFC South champ Houston the following week.
Cincinnati grabbed a one-game advantage over the three-team grouping of Oakland, Tennessee and the New York Jets for the final Wild Card berth up for grabs after holding on for a 23-16 win over visiting Arizona this past Saturday. The Bengals roared out to a 23-0 lead after three quarters, then staved off a late Cardinals' rally to prevail for the second consecutive week.
The Bengals could also get in as the No. 6 seed if the Jets fall at Miami this weekend and either Denver or the Raiders lose as well.
If Cincinnati is to advance to the playoffs, it would mark a significant achievement for a team expected to be in a long rebuilding mode coming off a dreadful 4-12 season in 2010.
"It's something this team believed we had a chance to do but we weren't getting much credit from the outside," Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton remarked. Inside this locker room, the coaches and everybody here knew we had a chance -- we just had to put it all together. We'll find out [this] week."
Cincinnati, which was dealt a 31-24 defeat by the Ravens in Baltimore on Nov. 20, owns a 4-3 record at Paul Brown Stadium this year. The Ravens, who will be shooting to finish 6-0 in divisional play for the first time in team annals, are 3-4 away from home in 2011 and have dropped five of their last six tilts with the Bengals held in Cincinnati.
Baltimore holds a 17-14 edge in its all-time series with Cincinnati and has taken the last two meetings between the clubs, having also bested the Bengals by a 13-7 count at M&T Bank Stadium in the 2010 regular-season finale. Cincinnati had defeated the Ravens three straight times prior to that defeat, including a 17-7 home win in 2009 and a 15-10 verdict at Paul Brown Stadium last season. Baltimore last topped the Bengals in Cincinnati via a 17-10 score in 2008, which also marks the last year the Ravens posted a home-and-home sweep of this set.
Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis is 10-7 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, during his nine-year reign as the Bengals' head coach. Harbaugh has gone 4-3 against both Lewis and Cincinnati during his tenure with the Ravens.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Baltimore has centered its offensive game plan around the considerable talents of running back Ray Rice (1173 rushing yards, 74 receptions, 13 total TD) during the season's stretch run, and that philosophy has shown to be a prudent one. The NFL's current leader in yards from scrimmage (1,869) has garnered 20 carries or more in five of the last six games, a stretch that began with a 20- attempt, 104-yard, two-touchdown effort against the Bengals in Week 11, and the Ravens have gone 5-1 while averaging 147.3 rushing yards per outing over that span. Rice also tops all league backs with 696 receiving yards as one of Flacco's primary targets, and the Pro Bowl honoree served as the main weapon in the passing game last week with top wideout Anquan Boldin (57 receptions, 3 TD) sidelined while recovering from a recent knee procedure that will keep him out of Sunday's test as well. Flacco (3480 passing yards, 19 TD, 12 INT) will still have field-stretching rookie Torrey Smith (45 receptions, 7 TD) to throw to, and the young speedster burned Cincinnati for a career-best 165 yards and a score on six catches in the first meeting, and the tight-end duo of Ed Dickson (53 receptions, 5 TD) and Dennis Pitta (34 receptions, 2 TD) provides two more capable pass-catchers when the Ravens decide to air it out. The front line will likely be without one of its cornerstones this week with Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda doubtful due to a rib injury, but the team does have a seasoned replacement in 10-year veteran Andre Gurode.
Though Rice was able to find some running room in these teams' last matchup, the Bengals have usually been very stout in that department over the course of the year. Cincinnati is yielding just 96.9 rushing yards per game (5th overall) and 3.7 yards per attempt in 2011, and held the Cardinals to a scant 59 yards on the ground a week ago. Tackle Geno Atkins (45 tackles, 8 sacks) and end Frostee Rucker (39 tackles, 4 sacks) have both been very good at holding the point of attack, allowing rugged middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (79 tackles, 1 INT) and weakside starter Thomas Howard (94 tackles, 1 sack) to make plays, with Atkins also developing into a top-notch pass rusher who leads all NFL interior linemen in sacks this season. Second-year end Carlos Dunlap (17 tackles, 4 sacks) has also brought steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks in a situational role, assisting a secondary that's remained solid despite losing top cornerback Leon Hall to a season-ending torn Achilles in November. Free safety Reggie Nelson (83 tackles, 2 sacks), a failed first-round draft pick in Jacksonville, has had a particularly strong year, leading the team with four interceptions with being credited with 12 passes defensed for a unit that ranks sixth in total defense (314.2 ypg).
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Though the rookie combination of quarterback Andy Dalton (3166 passing yards, 20 TD, 13 INT) and budding star wide receiver A.J. Green (63 receptions, 1031 yards, 7 TD) have each been major contributors to Cincinnati's unexpected playoff run, the Bengals are at their best offensively when running back Cedric Benson (1016 rushing yards, 6 TD, 13 receptions) is churning out yards with regularity. The former Chicago castoff has produced three 100-yard rushing performances this season, all of which were Cincinnati wins, and the Bengals are 4-0 when running for over 130 yards in a game this year. Benson was held to a season-low 41 yards on 15 carries by Baltimore's formidable defense back in Week 11, however, forcing Dalton to throw a career-high 45 times. The poised 24-year-old did finish the day with a personal-best 373 passing yards, an impressive feat considering the dynamic Green missed the contest with a hyperextended knee, but was intercepted three times as well. Talented wideout Jerome Simpson (45 receptions, 4 TD) helped offset his partner's absence by hauling in eight Dalton strikes for a career-high 152 yards in that game, and also burned the Ravens for 12 catches totaling 123 yards in last year's season finale. Baltimore will also have to account for tight end Jermaine Gresham (51 receptions), whose six touchdown receptions trails only Green for most on the team.
Benson could very well find rough sledding once again this week when going up against an accomplished Baltimore defense that's limited the opposition to a mere 91.8 rushing yards per game and 3.5 yards per attempt, numbers that both stand second in the league this season. Massive lineman Haloti Ngata (60 tackles, 5 sacks), one of four members of coordinator Chuck Pagano's group to be named to the AFC Pro Bowl roster, excels at clogging up lanes to free up iconic inside linebacker Ray Lewis (88 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), who's demonstrated that he's over the toe injury that sidelined him for a four-game stretch by recording double-digit tackle totals in back-to-back weeks upon his return. Pressuring the quarterback also hasn't been a problem for the Ravens, as the team's 47 sacks thus far are also second-best in the NFL. Pass-rushing terror Terrell Suggs (64 tackles, 13 sacks, 2 INT) is in the midst of a monster year from his hybrid end/outside linebacker position, while 2011 fifth-round draft choice Pernell McPhee (23 tackles, 6 sacks) has turned out to be a hidden gem utilized as a rotational rushing specialist up front. A secondary that's surrendered a league-low 11 touchdown passes is anchored by playmaking free safety Ed Reed (48 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT), who joined Ngata, Lewis and Suggs on this year's Pro Bowl squad, while emerging young cornerback Lardarius Webb (64 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INT) made a case to be included as well with his fine 2011 campaign.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Dalton. Cincinnati's young quarterback looked like a fresh-faced rookie in the first encounter, throwing three interceptions and having two of those picks immediately converted into critical Baltimore touchdowns in the second half. With Benson likely to find it tough to get untracked, the Bengals will need their field general to play like a battle-tested veteran against a Ravens team that's 8-0 this year when finishing either ahead or even in the turnover battle.
Baltimore's wide receivers. The absence of Boldin was felt in last week's game, as the Ravens mustered a season-low 122 passing yards against the Browns and Flacco was an off-target 11-of-24 on the afternoon. Smith's going to have to step up and show he can be a No. 1 receiver at this early stage of his career to help prevent Baltimore of becoming one-dimensional on offense, and having veteran Lee Evans -- a virtual non-factor all year in part due to injuries -- end his season-long vanishing act on Sunday would greatly aid the cause as well.
Tighten the secondary. Though the Ravens were able to induce mistakes out of Dalton in the Week 11 clash, their usually air-tight pass defense was hit for several big plays that nearly allowed the Bengals to pull off a comeback -- and that was without the field-stretching Green even on the field. Baltimore must keep both the rookie standout and Simpson, a player who's had big games against the Ravens in the past, in reasonable check to come out on top.
If there's a place where the Ravens are the most vulnerable, it's on the road, and the team's lack of success at Paul Brown Stadium in previous seasons is both noteworthy and breeds some caution. On the other hand, Baltimore possesses far more experience in high-stakes games such as this one, whereas the young Bengals are relative neophytes to the big stage. The Ravens haven't had a problem getting up for and performing in these types of situations, as most of their 2011 losses have come against opponents that will be sitting home come playoff time. And the fact that Baltimore is the more consistent and overall superiorly-talented of these two combatants certainly carries some weight. The Bengals are just 1-6 this season against foes presently above .500, and might just be not quite ready for prime time.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Bengals 20