Bengals vs. Ravens: Why A.J. Green Is the Key to a Cincinnati Playoff Berth

Matt GrayContributor IDecember 31, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 04:  A.J. Green #18 of the Cincinnati Bengals tries to catch a second quarter pass next to Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers but ends up drifting out of bounds at Heinz Field on December 4, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Bengals face their toughest test on Sunday when they host division rivals the Baltimore Ravens, and there couldn't be more on the line for either side.

The hope that Baltimore might have little to play for by this point has been eradicated, they will come into this one still in the hunt for a bye, while Cincy face a win-and-in scenario.

The Baltimore Ravens' 31-24 win over the Bengals earlier in the year will no doubt have been helpful to Andy Dalton in terms of preparation for this one, and the late rally that fell short will give him the confidence he needs to get it done this time.

There is one key that this game provides that its predecessor did not have to contend with: A.J. Green.

Sidelined with a knee injury for their first meeting, Green will return to the field on Sunday, and his presence could not be more important. The stats certainly don't lie:

A.J. Green has been sensational for the Cincinnati Bengals in his rookie campaign. He has the second-most receptions of 30 or more yards (12) of any receiver in the NFL and ranks in the top 15 in yards (1,031), yards per catch (16.4), and yards per target (10).

via ESPN

Whether it's seen as a good thing in the long run is worth debate, but Dalton is most comfortable when throwing to Green, and you would expect him to find those sure-thing hands in a game as important as this one.

Jerome Simpson may have grabbed the headlines last week, but put in a fairly pedestrian performance outside of "The Flip." I have no doubt Ed Reed may just have slam him down with authority if he tries it this week...

But Green can really provide the X-factor in this one. The ability for Dalton to throw the ball up and have Green go get it is important because if it weren't for Green, the Ravens defense would likely have the Bengals rookie offense down pat.

But the deep threat allows Dalton and Co. to look dangerous even if they don't throw to him and as a result,it opens up the rest of the offense for them.

The Ravens will likely have watched a lot of film on Green this week, but his size and speed will mean the Ravens either have to double-cover him all day, or risk him winning one-on-ones. 

Even if Green is locked up all afternoon, it will provide extra relief for Simpson and Jermaine Gresham to open up the field as they showed they can last week.

With the score likely to be high in this one, expect Jay Gruden to look to his star rookies for the big play often. But don't expect Green to do it all on his own. His presence may be even more important than his performance.

The Bengals Pro Bowl rookie wideout is nursing a shoulder injury coming into this one, but don't expect him to slow down this close to the finish line.

Sunday marks many of the young Bengals' first chance to make the playoffs, and it will be a learning experience for the vast majority. This game could define who the Bengals are going to be in 2011 and, win or lose, we need to see big things from them.

With the Ravens alternating between Jimmy Smith and Ladarius Webb splitting time at left corner, the inconsistency at that position could allow Green to dominate. Green has been one of the funnest players to watch this year, and you can expect him to ball-out in what could be his last game this season.