The Cincinnati Bengals have long admired and respected the success of the Baltimore Ravens, their accomplished rival in the AFC North.
That feeling hasn't changed, even though the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens bring a 3-5 record into Sunday's matchup against the first-place Bengals.
Cincinnati (6-3) has far outshined Baltimore this season, yet the Bengals still believe the true test of how far they've come will be determined by how they fare against the desperate Ravens.
"I always use the Baltimore Ravens as a measuring stick," said Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis, who earned a Super Bowl ring in 2001 as Baltimore's defensive coordinator.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown four interceptions and only two touchdown passes in four career games against the Ravens. Although the Baltimore defense has changed dramatically since that Super Bowl victory last February, Dalton knows he must be at his best on Sunday at a stadium where Cincinnati hasn't won since 2009.
"The Ravens have been one of the best teams in this division for a while," Dalton said. "Anytime you can go against teams like they've had, you see where you're at and see what kind of team that you've got. We don't expect anything less this year."
With a victory, Baltimore can move within a game of Cincinnati in the loss column. A defeat would all but end the Ravens' chances of repeating as division champs.
"We're kind of in a corner, but you're always in a corner," coach John Harbaugh said. "How we handle it will be what's remembered."
The Ravens are teetering on the edge of a cliff. The Bengals are poised to give them a hefty push.
"This game is more important to them," Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We realize we have a chance to go in and take control of our division."
Five things to know about the Bengals-Ravens matchup:
ATKINS OUT: The Bengals will play their first full game without standout defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who tore his right ACL in a loss to Miami on Oct. 31. "Geno is definitely the one guy who has stood out for them," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's a shame that he's not going to be able to be out there, and I'm sure that will affect them in some way. But they've got a bunch of guys over there that can get after the quarterback." Brandon Thompson replaced Atkins against Miami and finished with seven tackles.
RICE GROUNDED: The Ravens hope running back Ray Rice returns to form against a team he's dominated in the past. Rice has only 259 yards rushing this season and is averaging a paltry 2.7 yards per carry. But he averages 5.0 yards per carry in 10 career games against Cincinnati, and his eight rushing touchdowns are the most against any team. "I still believe we'll get the run game going," Rice said. "We have the guys. We've just seen some pretty good fronts and I've battled through some stuff (including a hip flexor injury) this year."
STREAKING OFFENSE: Dalton and Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green are on a roll. Dalton has topped the 300-yard mark in yards passing in four straight games and Green can set a team record Sunday with his fifth consecutive game of at least 100 yards receiving. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who doesn't often praise the opposition, said of Dalton: "He's one of the best in the game. His record says it and his numbers say it." Dalton's run of 300-yard games is a franchise record, and he's on pace to break Carson Palmer's single-season record of 4,131 yards passing (2009).
HOME RUN: The Ravens play four of the next five games at home, one reason why they're hopeful of making a belated playoff run. Baltimore is 8-1 at home in November since the start of the 2008 season and 35-8 overall under Harbaugh at M&T Stadium. "It's always a big advantage here," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "This crowd is the best I've ever been around in all the years I've coached."
INJURY REPORT: The Bengals defense will miss Atkins and will likely be without linebacker Rey Maualuga (concussion/ knee). Whitworth (knee) should return, as should running back Giovani Bernard, who left the Miami game with bruised ribs. Cornerback Jimmy Smith (thigh) and wide receiver Brandon Stokley (thigh) are iffy for Baltimore.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org