Ravens (4-3) @ Bengals (5-2)
If the Ravens can go into Paul Brown Stadium and exact some revenge on the Bengals this week, they will force their hat back into the ring of serious AFC North contenders. Otherwise, they will have fallen effectively three games behind Cincinnati in the division, quite a mountain to climb with eight games remaining.
So, do the Ravens have what it takes to “man up” and emerge victorious in a venue that has been none too kind to them over the years? B’More’s 34-3 win over the Ryan Fitzpatrick-led Bungles in 2008 was their first win at PBS since 2004, and they are just 2-4 in their last six in The Queen City. Quarterback Carson Palmer has owned the Ravens in his career, compiling a 7-3 record in 10 career starts.
As several have already pointed out, Cincy is starting to look like a “real” AFC North team – one that can run the ball and stop the run. The Bengals’ Cedric Benson was the one to break the Ravens’ streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher the last time these teams met, when he went for 120 and a TD on 27 carries (4.4 ypc). They also held the Ravens to 82 yards on the ground. Still, the Ravens averaged 4.6 yards per carry, which hints that maybe they should have stuck with their ground attack a bit more. Especially considering it was Joe Flacco’s worst game this season, as he threw for just 186 yards and added two interceptions for his 2009-low rating of 70.1.
Chad sent the Ravens’ D a care package this week. The Nest sends one of our own to #85. In it he will find a new helmet (to replace the one Ray knocked off him), a ball gag, a straight jacket, and a nice pretty new “grill.”
Joe Cool has bounced back nicely since getting shut down by Cincy, putting up back-to-back games of a 109.2 rating, and tossing three scores to go along with nary an interception against the capable (23rd) and strong (8th), respectively, defenses of Minnesota and Denver. Derrick Mason, who was held without a catch by Mike Zimmer’s crew last month, has 11 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns in the two games since.
Ray Rice has been the catalyst for the Ravens’ offense of late, as the little RB that could (wow, that’s terrible…come on, people…THIS MAN NEEDS A NICKNAME!) has averaged over 149 yards from scrimmage per game over the last four contests. Le’Ron “PAIN TRAIN” McClain had a season-high 31 yards on the ground against Denver, as Cam Cameron’s offense showed that, as the weather is cooling, maybe they are starting to get back to the formula that produced so much success in 2008. The Ravens called more running plays than passing plays (35-27) for the first time since the San Diego game, and just the second time all season. This after three consecutive losses where the playcalling was extremely lopsided towards the pass, to the tune of 46-18 (@ Min), 33-18 (vs. Cin), and 49-17 (@ NE). Now, a factor that can’t be overlooked was that the Ravens were playing with the lead for the entire game against Denver, but we would expect that the balance will continue this week. That is, as long as the rejuvenated defense can keep the score close, as Chicago was unable to do in Cincy two weeks ago, getting blown out 45-10.
Speaking of that rejuvenated defense, the Ravens’ D needs to prove that last week was no fluke. Plenty of the pundits were quick to proclaim the Ravens’ defense “back” after they dismantled and nearly shut out the previously high-flying Denver attack last week. However, to those of us who watch every game (twice), the Broncos’ short-passing game was simply the perfect antidote for the problems we have seen with the purple defense all season. Namely, the fact that Kyle Orton threw the ball deep all of ONE time (while the game was in reach, anyway)…and on that ONE throw, there was of course, some laundry also thrown, as Dominique Foxworth was called for pass interference. Apparently Josh McDaniels didn’t get the “just chuck it up” memo that Ravens’ corners have been sending to every team this year, via game film. Carson Palmer is no Kyle Orton, and he will show no such mercy to Foxworth and Fabian Washington, especially with the ever dangerous Chad Ochocinco and Chris Henry in his arsenal.
This isn’t to suggest that Foxworth and Washington have no prayer of having good games Sunday. The two played very well against Denver, lack of deep challenges notwithstanding, and Washington especially was extremely active in run support. It’s just that we Ravens fans need to see more of what we witnessed from the pair against Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal before we are comfortable putting the Pepto Bismol bottle down when we see opposing quarterbacks take 7-step drops.
The front seven will also need to continue their solid play from a week ago. Haloti Ngata, Kelly Gregg, Justin Bannan, and Trevor Pryce collapsed the pocket on Orton the likes of which we haven’t seen all season, and Greg Mattison’s blitzes, when called, found gaping holes in the Broncos’ protection schemes. It was a welcome departure from what we had seen to that point, but like the secondary, consistency is the word. Haloti Ngata is still very questionable with the ankle sprain he suffered near the goalline against Denver, and his absence would be noticeable, especially as the Ravens attempt to keep Benson from going over the century mark again. If Haloti is unable to go, the Ravens’ ample depth at DL will have to step up, including Brandon McKinney, Dwan Edwards, and potentially Kelly Talavou, who has been active just once in 2009.
The Bengals have been doing a very impressive job of keeping Palmer upright, as he has been sacked only 11 times, good for 6th in the NFL. By comparison, Flacco has been sacked just 12 times. Rookie offensive tackle Andre “Yip Yip Belly” Smith may see his first game action, though he is said to be expected to mostly play on running downs. If nothing else, this could give the Ravens an advantage in reading the plays pre-snap.
A loss in Cincy on Sunday would, in all likelihood, relegate the Ravens to chasing a Wild-Card berth. Week 9 just seems too soon for that for such a talented football team, one that is legitimately a Top-8 NFL squad. The difference will be the explosiveness of Ray Rice, Joe Flacco continuing to find Kelley Washington for key 3rd-down conversions, and a Ravens defense that is ready to build on what they started last week.
Ravens 24 Bengals 20