The New York Jets loss last night in Denver certainly helped the Cincinnati Bengals overall playoff prospects, but this weekend's game in Baltimore is crucial to any hopes the team has for winning the AFC North. The Baltimore Ravens have yet to lose an AFC North game, and having already beaten Pittsburgh twice, could solidify any tiebreaker advantage they would have with a win Sunday.
The Ravens have been rather mercurial in 2011, going 4-1 against teams with winning records, but only 2-2 against teams with losing records. Much of that has been due to a "high risk, high reward" style of play that they seem to have employed on both sides of the ball this season.
Baltimore can run the football. The two-headed monster of Ray Rice and Ricky Williams averages close to five yards per carry. Both backs have the ability to run hard between the tackles, break big gains if they get to the second level and catch the ball out of the backfield. Inexplicably, however, John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron have relied more on quarterback Joe Flacco to move the offense than on their more dependable backs.
For Flacco, 2011 was to have been his breakout season. He was showing improvement in each of his previous seasons and the Ravens went out and got him some speed to stretch the field in the draft. Despite all that, Flacco seems to have regressed, completing only 54.8% of his passes and accounting for 12 turnovers in nine games. Much of that might be traced to poor pass protection. While the Ravens have excelled at running the football, they've not kept Flacco clean in the pocket. He's been sacked already 20 times in the Ravens nine games.
For the Bengals to be successful, they're going to have to contain Rice and Williams, as well as Ed Dickson who is emerging as Flacco's favorite red zone option. If Cincinnati can get a lead, Baltimore has shown a penchant for becoming one dimensional, which would be an advantage for the Bengals' aggressive pass rush.
On the defensive side, future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis will be out of action because of injury for the first time since 2007. What impact that has on the Ravens defense is hard to figure. Lewis has certainly been the leader of that unit for a long time, but Ed Reed is equally revered as a leader and just as dangerous in producing key turnovers.
The Ravens still get after the quarterback with their front seven. They've recorded 27 sacks in nine games, third in the NFL. Their secondary can be had, however. Baltimore has given up 28 plays of over 20 yards in the passing game. With AJ Green still a game time decision, that puts even more pressure on Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell to run effective routes and pick up yards after the catch. Andrew Hawkins has been getting more snaps and his contributions could be crucial this week as well.
Andy Dalton has been patient and has generally avoided making big mistakes. Last week, though, he threw two crucial picks that ended potential scoring drives against Pittsburgh. Against Baltimore, he will need to continue to show an ability to elude the pass rush and avoid making hurried throws to an opportunistic defense that likes to score themselves. For the Bengals to win Sunday, Dalton will have to ensure that only the Ravens offense has a chance to score.
Sunday's game won't make or break the Bengals' playoff hopes, but it may just do that for their hopes for a divisional crown.
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