Final Game Against Cincinnati Bengals Proves Huge Test for the Baltimore Ravens

Drew FrazierContributor IIIDecember 29, 2011

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 24:  Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates during the closing moments of the Ravens 20-14 win over the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Fans of the Baltimore Ravens—and any NFL team really—are known to be dramatic at times and take each game of the season too seriously. That’s probably even truer for Ravens fans this season, because the Pittsburgh Steelers have been keeping pace with the Ravens’ record and fans desperately want the team to win the division.

Anyone who has watched the Ravens play this season could tell you why.

The Ravens have played like a different team on the road this season, and winning the AFC North gets a first-round bye and—more importantly—home-field advantage in the divisional round of the playoffs.

When we say that the Ravens have played like a different team on the road versus at home, that’s not an overstatement. The Ravens have a perfect 8-0 record at home, but have struggled on the road with a 3-4 record.

The record would be forgivable and somewhat understandable if the Ravens had played and lost to tough teams on the road, but aside from the Chargers—who were hot when the Ravens played them at home—all of the Ravens losses have been to mediocre teams with losing records.

The funny part is that the Ravens have beaten some quality opponents this season. Before you start to get down on the Ravens or try to write them off for their inconsistencies—like the fact that they’ve lost to teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are 4-11 right now—you have to look at the accomplishments that they have had this season.

They’ve beaten the Steelers twice—including on the road—they’ve nearly swept the division with a perfect 5-0 in the AFC North so far and they’ve also beaten teams like the Houston Texans, the New York Jets, the San Francisco 49ers and even the Cincinnati Bengals—who they face off against this Sunday.

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 24:  Brendon Ayanbadejo #51 of the Baltimore Ravens tackles  Peyton Hillis #40 of the Cleveland Browns short of a first down during the second half of the Ravens 20-14 win at M&T Bank Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Baltimore, Mar
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Despite all of their impressive accomplishments and the fact that they beat the Steelers twice this season, the Ravens are still in danger of losing the division to the Steelers. That’s a maddening thought for Ravens fans, but the fact is that the Steelers have taken care of business and beaten the teams that they’re supposed to beat, while the Ravens have squandered several opportunities to take multiple game leads over the Steelers.

That’s the biggest reason why this game versus the Bengals is one of the biggest games of the season for the Ravens. They might as well be playing the Steelers, because that’s what this Sunday is going to be about.

Obviously, the Steelers are going to need to take care of business versus the Cleveland Browns, but considering their track record this season, most people believe that they will find a way to win. The Ravens are the team with the questionable record, and there are many factors stacked against the Ravens that would make fans and analysts question their chances in the final game of the season.

Maybe most concerning of all is the suspect play of the usually-stout Ravens defense in the last few games.

The Ravens defense has been hot and the strength of the team this season, but over the last few games, they seem to be cooling off a bit. They were shredded versus San Diego, and they couldn’t seem to control the Browns offense like most people expected that they would.

Sure, the Browns offense didn’t dominate the Ravens defense like the Chargers did, but the Ravens didn’t take advantage of what was an obviously inept offense. Against the Ravens, the Browns demonstrated horrible clock management and actually ran out of time in the first half on the Ravens goal line.

They were also flailing on offense and used all of their called timeouts on the offensive side of the ball. They even shot themselves in the foot on the final play when—on fourth down—an off-sides penalty by the Browns defense gave the Ravens a first down and another possession with which they were able to take knee and end the game.

BALTIMORE - NOVEMBER 20:  Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals scrambles against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on November 20, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Bengals 31-24. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
Larry French/Getty Images

Even with all of those struggles, the Browns still managed to nearly come back in the game after being down by three scores, and Browns running back Peyton Hillis was punishing the Ravens’ defenders all game long and managed to get over 100 yards rushing in the game.

There’s little doubt that the Steelers will handle the Browns better than the Ravens did, because they seem to handle losing teams better than the Ravens, but the question still remains.

Can the Ravens go on the road and beat a team that they’ve historically struggled against in Cincinnati?

That’s a hard question to answer, and not many people could give you a confident answer. The people feeling most confident are probably the Bengals players and coaches. They know about the Ravens struggles on the road, and they’ve historically been one of the hardest teams for the Ravens to beat—even in years when they’ve had bad records.

Furthermore, the Bengals are playing at home, and even though the Ravens have beaten them once this season, they have to like their chances because their rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, threw for 373 yards in their first meeting. Sure, he threw three costly interceptions, but the fact that he was moving the ball with seeming ease is a good sign for the Bengals and something that the Ravens must be concerned with.

As if everything already isn’t stacked against the Ravens, the Bengals are healthier than they were the last time they faced the Ravens, and the Ravens are banged up. The Bengals will have their stand-out receiver, A.J. Green, who did not play in the last game versus the Ravens, while the Ravens will likely be without one of their best offensive lineman, Marshal Yanda.

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 24:  Ramon Harewood #78 blocks as Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens throws a pass against the Cleveland Browns during the second half at M&T Bank Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty I
Rob Carr/Getty Images

There’s no question that the deck is stacked against the Ravens heading into Cincinnati.

It almost seems like fate how the Ravens have come down to the wire with the Steelers in the division, and it’s certainly ironic that the Ravens are being forced to beat a team that they’ve historically struggled against on the road—where they’ve also struggled—just to win the division.

The only good news is that the Ravens know how to play well in big games and have done so this season. When they play up to their potential, there’s no question that the Ravens can beat any team in the league. The only problem is predicting when the Ravens will show up and if they’ll play in Cincinnati like the huge game that it is.

The Ravens desperately need a first-round bye in the playoffs to help them get healthy for a Super Bowl run and ensure home advantage, which is huge given their perfect record at home. If there ever was a game to get dramatic about, Ravens fans, this is it.