The young Bengals team will be playing for their reputation.
Cincinnati has beaten weaker opponents, but against other postseason contenders, the Bengals have been the little engine that almost could. Marvin Lewis’ team dropped a brutal defensive struggle to the San Francisco 49ers. They also outscored the Pittsburgh Steelers in the last three quarters of their first meeting but could not recover from a 14-point first quarter deficit.
They played well in these defeats, but could not overcome the play of the NFL’s upper-echelon.
The Bengals had the Houston Texans against the ropes, leading in the final seconds of the game, but a botched coverage led to Houston touchdown and cost the Bengals an important victory. Again, Cincinnati came close to making a huge statement, but they fell approximately two seconds short.
The last time the Bengals took the field against the Ravens, Cincinnati was in the midst of a fourth-quarter comeback when Terrell Suggs and the Baltimore defensive front seven exploded and manhandled the Bengals offensive line for three consecutive plays. Cincinnati should not have even been in that position, but officials erased Andy Dalton's touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham because of the ridiculous “Calvin Johnson” rule.
Out-manned by the traditional powerhouses, the Bengals, a fiery underdog, are playing the lead role in an NFL fairytale. The whole world doubted their ability to do anything but suffer loss after embarrassing loss this season. Now, they are in a position to not only extend the season, but to move from a team with a bright future to a team on a hot streak headed into the playoffs.
To make this underdog fantasy come true, the Bengals must bully the Ravens. Baltimore has lost on the road to the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans, two teams with similar styles to Cincinnati. The Bengals must use those games as a blueprint if they are to cross the precipice from good to great and make the playoffs.
The Bengals' offensive line—without veteran Bobbie Williams—must change the line of scrimmage so Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott can deliver body blows to the Baltimore D. This will stagger the Ravens and soften them up to open up the passing game for Andy Dalton, Jerome Simpson and A.J. Green, who did not play in the first meeting between the teams.
Defensively, the Bengals must play the Ravens like the Ravens. That is to say that they must play as disciplined as they are aggressive.
Cincinnati has had trouble containing the edge against the run. If these troubles continue Sunday, they will not slow down Ray Rice and the Baltimore rushing attack. Mike Zimmer must cook up some new blitzes to disrupt Joe Flacco, and the secondary cannot blow a single coverage. The defense must play with controlled violence.
The Cincinnati Bengals have reached the climax of a fairytale, with one dragon to slay before they are exalted heroes. A victory Sunday cements the sixth seed in the AFC, but more importantly, it sends a message: The Bengals have arrived.