It's a pretty simple formula for the Cincinnati Bengals: win today against the Baltimore Ravens and move into a first place tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers with a 2-1 AFC North record and one more game to go against the Steelers. Lose and drop a game off the pace of both the Steelers and Ravens with a 1-2 record and a loss to each already on the books. If the Bengals want to realistically remain in contention for an improbable division title this year, winning in Baltimore today is a necessity.
That's not easy under any conditions, but the Bengals will take the field today without AJ Green who is still recovering from a hyper extended knee. Green didn't practice at all this week and is listed as doubtful on the injury list. That means that Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Andrew Hawkins will need to step forward and make big plays. The Ravens secondary can be had for big plays, but Andy Dalton will have to endure an aggressive pass rush and the receivers can't afford the drops and poor routes that plagued them last week.
Baltimore will be down an important player on the defensive side as Ray Lewis won't play due to an injured foot, his first injury-related missed game since 2007. That could help open things up on the second level for the Bengals' tight ends and running backs. Cedric Benson is only averaging 3.3 yards per carry for his career against Baltimore, but Bernard Scott has averaged 4.7 yards. Don't be surprised if Scott gets a few more carries or passes out of the backfield to test the Ravens sans Lewis.
The key on offense will be for Andy Dalton to keep his composure. The Ravens will get some pressure on him and thrive on making the big play on defense. If the Bengals are to win, Dalton will have to avoid picks and fumbles that would put the Ravens in scoring position. Letting Kevin Huber punt would be much more preferable than turning the ball over.
The Ravens offense has shown explosiveness, but overall has been pretty inconsistent, especially in the first half. The Bengals defense must contain Ray Rice and Ricky Williams and force Joe Flacco to beat them. With Leon Hall gone for the season, Kelly Jennings will have to step up and cover either Anquan Boldin or rookie speedster Torrey Smith. The Bengals safeties can't afford to get caught looking in the backfield trying to stop Rice or Boldin or Smith can get behind them.
The Bengals pass rush has been outstanding, and for the first time in a few weeks, they'll be facing a fairly stationary target in Flacco. He's been sacked 20 times this season, so the opportunities will be there for the Bengals to get theirs. Flacco has also been mistake prone. The Bengals defense will need to force a few of those mistakes and give their offense some short fields.
This is an important game for both teams, but I think the Bengals youth along with Green's absence might just be a little too much to overcome in this one. Look for a low scoring game with the Ravens coming out with a narrow victory. Ravens 20, Bengals 13.
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