Going into the game, the Ravens knew that a victory would secure their position as the No. 2 seed in the AFC and, most importantly, a first-round bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage in the divisional round at the very least.
On the other hand, the Bengals knew that a victory over the Ravens would give them a wild-card spot in the playoffs. That wasn’t the only scenario that would get them into the playoffs, but it was the only one that they had control over.
Needless to say, both teams had much to play for, and everyone knew that the game would be a dog fight.
The Ravens seemed to take control of the game early with an amazing 70-yard touchdown by running back Ray Rice and a subsequent field goal that put the Ravens up 10-0, but the Bengals never allowed the Ravens to run away with the game. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was impressive and was finding his big receivers all over the field.
The Bengals battled the Ravens until the final snap. After the Ravens scored a touchdown before the half and took a 17-3 lead, the Bengals seemed to wake up. They scored 10 points and came within four points of the Ravens with the score 17-13.
Dalton was finding his receivers down the field and the Bengals defense was limiting the Ravens offense. More importantly, the Bengals seemed to turn the momentum of the game against the Ravens.
Luckily for the Ravens, they had an ace up their sleeve. After the defense forced a fumble by Bengals running back Cedric Benson, Ravens running back Ray Rice broke off a 50-yard touchdown run and put the Ravens ahead 24-13.
Rice’s touchdown demoralized the Bengals, and they never were really able to come back from it. They managed to score another field goal and set Dalton up for a potential touchdown drive—with a minute left in the game—just to force overtime. That was too tall of a task for Dalton, and the Ravens defense stopped the Bengals offense as time expired in the game.
As previously stated, this victory gives the Ravens a first-round bye in the playoffs and assures home-field advantage for the Ravens in the divisional round. The Ravens aren’t a perfect team but they definitely earned the division title.
With all of their injuries, they can certainly use the rest, but perhaps the biggest bonus is the home field advantage since the Ravens have a perfect home record this season.
We always learn more about the Ravens whether they win or lose, so let’s take a look at what we learned after their 24-16 win over the Bengals.
This game was all about the receivers on both teams. The similarities and differences between the Ravens receivers and the Bengals receivers are remarkable.
The Ravens receivers are a young group, but the Bengals receivers are no more experienced than those on the Ravens. Both teams have young No. 1 receivers, have young starting tight ends and generally lacked experience throughout their entire receiving corps, but their biggest difference is in the production on the field.
The Bengals receivers are actually very good and extremely productive for being so young. Bengals rookie receiver A.J. Green is a phenomenal player who the Ravens—and the other teams in AFC North—are going to dread playing for the next decade, and Jerome Simpson, a fourth-year player, has also had a fantastic season for the Bengals. Both of those players can get open all over the field and perhaps most importantly, make tough, contested catches for Andy Dalton.
The Ravens certainly run a different offense that the Bengals, and it is smart to lean on Ray Rice, who is clearly their best offensive weapon. However, the main reason why the Ravens offense has sputtered this season and why the Bengals offense is much more effective passing the ball is because of the Ravens receivers.
The Ravens receivers have been a problem for several season now. Obviously, Torrey Smith shows tremendous upside but is not very effective as a No. 1 receiver right now. The fact is that the Ravens receivers are a liability. Ed Dickson, who actually made a very tough catch after being hit hard over the middle of the field, has struggled with drops and none of the other receivers are pulling their weight.
That may sound harsh, but it’s the honest truth. The Ravens receivers stepped up with a few big catches today, but looking ahead to the playoffs, the Ravens need to work with their receivers. Getting Anquan Boldin back healthy will help but won’t solve all their problems. If the Ravens want to win against the quality teams in the playoffs, they will need to find ways to get their receiver open with creative, balanced play-calling.
It’s impossible to find anything to criticize about Ray Rice after his sensational 191-yard, two-touchdown performance.
Rice is clearly one of the most dynamic running backs in the NFL right now. His vision is excellent, his acceleration is elite, his cutting ability is elite and his balance is second to none. If there is a knock on Rice it’s that he’s no the best running back at powering through the middle for extra yardage.
That’s not really a criticism since Rice always gives 110 percent no matter what he’s doing, but the Ravens would be better off using Ricky Williams more in short yardage situations and on runs up the middle.
When you glance at Rice’s numbers, the yardage total is amazing and one would imagine Rice running wild all game long, but the statistics don’t tell the whole story.
Rice had 24 attempts for 191 yards. That’s an incredible average of almost eight yards per carry. No one could argue with that… if that was the whole story.
The only problem is that 121 of those yards came off of two long runs and if you take those two runs away, Rice only had 22 attempts for 70 yards. That’s only an average of 3.2 yards per carry and probably paints a more accurate picture of how effective Rice was on an average running play.
Now let’s look at Ricky Williams. Williams had six carries for 28 yards—which is an average of over 4.6 yards per carry, which is very good. This means that Williams was probably a bit more effective at grinding out yardage in the game than Rice was versus the Bengals.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that Williams is better than Rice, and there are two sides to this argument. Williams won’t give the Ravens the big-play threat that Rice gives them. If the Ravens had Williams on the field on the plays where Rice broke the long runs, they probably would have missed out on the touchdowns.
At the same time, Williams seems to be better a pounding the ball up the middle, so the Ravens would be foolish to ignore that fact.
The individual yards per carry don’t mean anything. The only thing that matters is that the team can effectively move the ball up and down the field. The best option is to balance Rice with Williams. The Ravens will obviously want to give more carries to Rice, but Williams should be used more in short yardage situations.
We’ve seen the same problem multiple times this season. The Ravens defense has trouble pressuring quarterbacks or stopping the run against teams with big, strong offensive linemen. They also have trouble defending against big, physical receivers.
The first example of their vulnerability to big receivers was the first game that the Ravens lost when Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kenny Britt shredded the Ravens secondary and was a big reason why the Ravens lost the game. The most recent example is obviously the Chargers game when Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd dominated the Ravens secondary.
Some of the problem is the the way the NFL is being played now. With all of the rules being written in the offenses favor—including the fact that just about any contact on a receiver is flagged—big, strong wide receivers and tight ends are just the wave of the future in the NFL.
However, the Ravens have a fundamental problem with big receivers because of their defensive scheme. The Ravens play man-coverage with their cornerbacks on the majority of their plays, and the fact that big receivers typically specialize in beating defensive backs one on one gives the Ravens fits.
That’s one reason that the Ravens went out of their way to draft big cornerback Jimmy Smith in the first round and were excited about the emergence of cornerback Cary Williams, who is also a big corner. The idea is that bigger corners can play better versus bigger receivers, who are becoming more and prevalent in the league.
There’s no doubt that Smith will be an asset in future seasons, but he’s still a rookie and makes rookie mistakes. That makes him a risky starter, and unfortunately, not many of the other corners—including Cary Williams—are playing well versus big receivers.
The other defensive problem that the Ravens have is that their front seven is vulnerable to teams with big offensive linemen. This is mainly because their defensive scheme is based on the supposition that they can out-physical any team that they face.
The Ravens are used to shutting down opposing running games with very little effort from the defensive line, so when their linemen actually need help from the linebackers, it throws the whole defense off. We have seen this happen against the Jaguars, the Chargers and today versus the Bengals.
Against the Bengals, the Ravens linebackers had to get seriously involved in run support, and that hurt the defense in pass protection. In fact, there were times when the Bengals five offensive linemen were handling the entire front seven of the Ravens. That is an impressive feat by the Bengals considering how much talent is in the Ravens front seven—three Pro Bowlers.
Luckily for the Ravens, not many teams have offensive linemen that can give them trouble.
You would think that the Ravens would be one of the most confident teams heading into the playoffs. They have a good team that posted a 12-4 record with a good running game and a good defense. That has historically been a winning combination, but the Ravens have several weaknesses that can be exploited by a good team and should be addressed during the first-round bye.
Several of their weaknesses we have already talked about—the receivers’ inconsistencies and the defenses vulnerabilities—but what exactly can the Ravens do to address their issues?
The problem is that the team is what it is at this point. There isn’t any real personnel adjustment that they can make. They’re already starting all of their best players, so the only thing that they can do is make scheme adjustments and get creative with their play calling.
That’s exactly what winning football is all about in the playoffs. There are no perfect teams, and every team has vulnerabilities. The Ravens will win if they can find ways to minimize their weaknesses and maximize their strengths versus each opponent they face.
The Ravens are generally a very fundamentally sound team. They make teams beat them with physicality, toughness and fundamental football. That’s one of the reasons why they have a hard time with big offensive lines… They’re not used to being pushed around easily.
The Ravens also match up well against many of the teams in the AFC. They probably match up better than any other team versus the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, and probably like their chances against Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.
The Ravens need to focus on their playoff adjustments, but more than anything they just need to keep playing physical, winning football. They are 12-4 for a reason and are an extremely tough team to beat. Sure, they have their weaknesses, but the Ravens and their fans have to love their chances.