Even though the Cincinnati Bengals turned in a surprise postseason appearance last season, the team feels it still has something to prove.
They'll get a chance to gain some early validation right out of the gates, making a visit to the harsh environment of M&T Bank Stadium for a primetime matchup with the defending AFC North Baltimore Ravens that will open up the NFL's Monday night schedule for the 2012 season.
Cincinnati defied the experts by putting together a 9-7 record -- a five-game improvement from a forgettable previous season -- and reaching the AFC Playoffs as a Wild Card entry in 2011, with the heady play of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and the game-changing skills of first-year wide receiver A.J. Green paving the way for the team's unexpected surge.
With those two at the forefront of a strong collection of young talent the Bengals have assembled the past few years, expectations are quite high in the Queen City for 2012. But how much Cincinnati progresses during Dalton and Green's second season may depend how the team handles the tough opponents on the upcoming schedule.
Counting their 31-10 defeat at Houston in the first round of the playoffs, the Bengals went just 1-7 against foes that finished .500 or better last year. That includes a pair of hard-fought setbacks to the Ravens, a 31-24 loss at M&T Bank Stadium and a 24-16 ousting in Cincinnati in the regular-season finale.
"For us to play really good teams like that every year, twice a year, and for this team and this offense and everybody to get to where we want to be, we've got to find ways to beat those teams," said Dalton.
Cincinnati will also be attempting to buck another negative trend, with the Bengals last reaching the playoffs in back-to-back years in 1981 and 1982.
The Ravens had an even more bitter ending to an otherwise very successful campaign, coming up just short in a stinging 23-20 loss to New England in the AFC Championship Game best remembered for Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff misfiring on a 32-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds that would have forced overtime.
Baltimore experienced another tough break during the offseason, with pass- rushing terror Terrell Suggs suffering a partial Achilles tendon tear that will sideline the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year for at least half the schedule, and the team will enter Monday's opener with some heavy hearts as well after former team owner Art Modell passed away on Thursday.
The 87-year-old Modell relocated the original Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1996 and christened the franchise as the Ravens, and served as the team's patriarch until selling it to businessman Steve Bisciotti in 2004.
One of the NFL's most active and influential owners during his time with the Browns and Ravens, Modell was also instrumental in the establishment of the hugely successful "Monday Night Football" program in 1970.
"I told him that we're playing Monday night and that he was going to be there watching the game and we're going to fight for him," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh about his visit to Modell in the hospital earlier in the week. "And that we're going to play our best football for Art Modell."
Baltimore is coming off a 12-4 regular season and brings an 11-game winning streak at M&T Bank Stadium, counting last January's 20-13 triumph over Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, into Monday's tilt. The Ravens have also prevailed in eight consecutive non-postseason contests against AFC North members and are 19-1 in their last 20 overall outings at home.
Ravens lead 18-14
Streak: Ravens have won last three meetings 2011 Meetings: Ravens 31, Bengals 24 (Nov. 20 at Baltimore) Ravens 24, Bengals 16 (Jan. 1 at Cincinnati)
Bengals HC Marvin Lewis vs. Ravens: 10-8 Ravens HC John Harbaugh vs. Bengals: 5-3 Lewis vs. Harbaugh Head-to-Head: Harbaugh leads, 5-3
Notes: All four matchups in the series over the past two seasons have been decided by eight points or less. Cincinnati's most recent victory in the set was a 15-10 home decision in Week 2 of the 2010 season. Bengals have lost in two straight and three of their last four trips to Baltimore, with their lone victory during that stretch a 17-14 decision in 2009. Lewis was the Ravens' defensive coordinator from 1996 to 2001 and helped Baltimore to a win in Super Bowl XXXV to conclude the 2000 season.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Cincinnati: 20th overall (319.9 ypg), 19th rushing (111.1 ypg), 20th passing (208.8 ypg), 18th scoring (21.5 ppg)
Baltimore: 15th overall (338.7 ypg), 10th rushing (124.8 ypg), 19th passing (213.9 ypg), tied 12th scoring (23.6 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Cincinnati: 7th overall (316.3 ypg), 10th rushing (104.7 ypg), 9th passing (211.6 ypg), 9th scoring (20.2 ppg)
Baltimore: 3rd overall (288.9 ypg), 2nd rushing (92.6 ypg), 4th passing (196.3 ypg), 3rd scoring (16.6 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Cincinnati: E (22 takeaways, 22 giveaways) Baltimore: +2 (26 takeaways, 24 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Cincinnati: 45.1 percent (51 possessions, 23 TD, 20 FG) -- 26th overall Baltimore: 51.0 percent (49 possessions, 25 TD, 19 FG) -- 17th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Cincinnati: 58.5 percent (41 possessions, 24 TD, 13 FG) -- 25th overall Baltimore: 38.1 percent (42 possessions, 16 TD, 15 FG) -- 1st overall
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
After opting not to re-sign both leading rusher Cedric Benson and No. 2 receiver Jerome Simpson during the offseason, it's clear the Bengals' plan is to get the ball in the hands of the dynamic Green (65 receptions, 1057 yards, 7 TD in 2011) as much as possible on Monday. That may be a task easier said than done, though, as the Ravens focused their defensive attention towards containing the second-year standout when the teams last met in Week 17 (Green did not play in the first matchup). If that's again the case, Dalton (3398 yards, 20 TD, 13 INT) may have to lean more on secondary targets such as tight end Jermaine Gresham (56 receptions, 6 TD), slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (23 receptions) and the combo of return specialist Brandon Tate and 2011 practice- squad member Armon Binns, both of whom are expected to rotate as Simpson's replacement. The ground game, now headed by New England refugee BenJarvus Green-Ellis (667 rushing yards, 11 TD), figures to have trouble gaining any sustained steam against Baltimore's rugged run defense, which places an greater responsibility on the shoulders of Dalton. Although the young quarterback performed impressively well overall on the road during his rookie year, he was intercepted three times in Cincinnati's loss at M&T Bank Stadium in November and completed less than 52 percent (46-of-89) of his throws over the two games in last season's series. The Bengals come in with concerns on the offensive line as well, with starting center Kyle Cook and left guard Travelle Wharton forced to injured reserve during the preseason. Cincinnati did bring in seasoned veteran Jeff Faine to take Cook's place, but he's been with the team for less than two weeks.
Baltimore's greatest challenge on defense will be trying to replicate the insane production that Suggs gave the unit a year ago, when the ferocious end/outside linebacker hybrid racked up 14 sacks and a league-best seven forced fumbles while also being a force in run support. More than likely, new coordinator Dean Pees will utilize more of a committee approach to generate pressure, with Suggs stand-in Paul Kruger (15 tackles, 5.5 sacks), situational end Pernell McPhee (23 tackles, 6 sacks), rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw (2nd Round, Alabama) and even All-Pro tackle Haloti Ngata (64 tackles, 5 sacks) all counted on to step up in that area. More up-the-gut blitzes by cornerstone inside linebacker Ray Lewis (95 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and passing-down counterpart Brendon Ayanbadejo (35 tackles, 1.5 sacks) may be part of Pees' formula as well. Expect big-play safety Ed Reed (52 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) to be stationed extensively on Green's side to help out cornerbacks Lardarius Webb (67 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INT) and Cary Williams (78 tackles, 16 PD) and attempt to get Dalton to check down. The Ravens should be their usual stifling selves against the run, with Ngata, Lewis and physical strong safety Bernard Pollard (75 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) spearheading a crew that held opponents to 3.5 yards per carry last year, second-best in the NFL.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Baltimore has predominantly been a pretty conservative outfit on offense under Harbaugh and coordinator Cam Cameron, but it appears as if this year's team will be more fast-paced and free-wheeling that what fans are accustomed to. The Ravens ran a lot of no-huddle plays during the preseason, a concept Harbaugh believes suits the strengths of strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco (3610 passing yards, 20 TD, 12 INT), and there are certainly enough capable weapons to make the idea work. Second-year wideout Torrey Smith (50 receptions, 7 TD) can stretch the field with the best of them and proved so with a six-catch, 165-yard, one-touchdown display in last November's home win over Cincinnati, and more speed was brought in with the free-agent signing of Jacoby Jones (31 receptions, 2 TD). The ex-Texans will work as the No. 3 receiver behind Smith and hard-nosed veteran Anquan Boldin (57 receptions, 3 TD), who remains Flacco's go-to-guy over the middle and in the clutch. Cameron still won't be phasing out Ray Rice (1364 rushing yards, 76 receptions, 15 total TD), however, with the star running back continuing his role as an every-down workhorse as well as an excellent outlet in the passing game. Rice torched the Bengals in last year's two encounters, amassing a prolific 295 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and should be primed for another outstanding season operating behind the league's best lead-blocking fullback in Vonta Leach (15 receptions).
For Cincinnati to have its best chance of emerging victorious, it's an absolute necessity that the defense prevents Rice from running wild like he did in last season's games. Tackles Geno Atkins (47 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and Domata Peko (66 tackles, 2.5 sacks) will have to win their battles in the trenches, while linebackers Rey Maualuga (88 tackles, 1 INT) and Thomas Howard (99 tackles, 1 sack) must be disciplined in their assignments and sound in their tackling. That's not the only potential headache for coordinator Mike Zimmer, however. He may be without his best edge rusher on Monday with end Carlos Dunlap (23 tackles, 4.5 sacks) questionable with a knee sprain, while talented rookie cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) has already been ruled out, leaving the secondary with graybeards Nate Clements (55 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and Terence Newman (53 tackles, 4 INT) as two of the top three corners along with the steady Leon Hall (32 tackles, 2 INT). Count on the Ravens testing both of them along with new strong safety Taylor Mays (10 tackles), a capable run stopper who's unproven in coverage. Zimmer will be relying on Atkins, who tied for the league lead among interior players in sacks in 2011, and end Michael Johnson (42 tackles, 6 sacks) to bring the heat and help out the back end.
Knocking off the Ravens on their home turf is a daunting task in itself, but trying to do so when Baltimore is the healthier team makes the chore doubly tough. Suggs' absence shouldn't be as much as an impediment against a Cincinnati team that lacks any real playmakers other than Green and is still in the process sorting things out on a depleted offensive line, and the Bengals' secondary also doesn't look to be in top shape for its matchup against a good corps of Baltimore receivers. And if Rice extends his streak of huge games against Cincinnati, this one could get ugly. The Bengals didn't appear quite ready for primetime last season, and that may be the case as well to begin 2012.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Bengals 13