With both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns losing on Sunday, the winner on Monday Night Football will have the division lead to themselves. Though they will only be 1-0, the winning team will be considered the AFC North favorite and they will have already picked up a crucial divisional win.
Going into the game, the Baltimore Ravens have to like their chances to win. They are 4-0 in season openers under John Harbaugh and they have now won eight consecutive regular season games against division opponents.
However, the Cincinnati Bengals are a determined team this year as they try to put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in over 30 seasons. Even though they've dropped three straight to the Ravens, all of these games were determined by a margin of eight points or less. With a young team that is fresh off a surprising playoff berth, the Bengals are not a team to be overlooked.
The Ravens are going to need to play to their strengths and exploit the Bengals' potential weaknesses for them to walk away victorious. With only a few hours to go till their season opener, here's a look at what the Ravens must do to pull off the victory.
A.J. Green has established himself as the Bengals' go-to receiver thanks to his breakout rookie season. Last year, he totaled 65 receptions for 1,057 yards and seven touchdown en route to a Pro Bowl appearance.
It was more than enough for Cincinnati fans to forget about the disappointing shenanigans of past receivers like Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens.
Although preseason performances don't always mean very much, Ravens fans were disappointed to note that the Ravens cornerbacks had some difficulty stopping elite wide receivers. Guys like Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson were far too dominant for the Ravens to seriously present an argument for having the best pass defense in the NFL.
Green should be the Bengals' top receiving threat tonight, and Andy Dalton will be looking to get the ball to him frequently. The Ravens will probably use both Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams to cover him in man-to-man coverage.
Besides Green, the majority of the Bengals' receivers are unproven players who don't really scare anyone. If Green is neutralized by the cornerbacks, Dalton will need to look for someone else, and it's far more likely that the Bengals will have a bad passing day.
This may seem redundant since Ray Rice is clearly one of the focal points of the Ravens offense.
It bears noting, though, that the Ravens went 1-3 last season in games where Rice had 10 or less carries. Even with their new focus on throwing the ball and running the no-huddle more, Rice still needs to be an important offensive player.
The Bengals in particular are one of those teams that Rice seems to play his best games against. In the last three games, he has rushed for 372 yards and five touchdowns. It's clear the Bengals have had some difficulty stopping him and Rice should have every confidence that he can again dominate their defense.
With Bernard Pierce occasionally spelling him and Vonta Leach blocking for him, Rice should be primed for a big game. He'll need to continue his habit of bouncing tackles and he'll also need to look out for new defenders like Jamaal Anderson, who was brought in to help with their run defense.
Running against the Ravens is never really an easy task. Last year, they had the second-best run defense in the league, which is basically a standard ranking for them. For the most part, they stopped the run game and forced the opposition to throw the ball.
There were exceptions, though, last season, with Maurice Jones-Drew and Marshawn Lynch successfully running for over 100 yards in upset victories.
Also, Terrell Suggs is injured, while the defense has to replace free-agent departures like Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding.
The Bengals will be hoping that their own free-agent acquisition, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, can become a franchise running back. Having never fumbled the ball during his NFL career and solidified his reputation as a goal-line running back, Green-Ellis could present matchup problems for the Ravens defense.
The Ravens' defensive linemen will have to hit him early and make it clear that the Bengals aren't getting anything in the running game.
Both Albert McClellan and Paul Kruger are beginning their first full seasons as NFL starters. That's a pretty intimidating task as the Ravens defense has consistently put together elite starters, and if either player struggles, they could be dealing with a lot of criticism.
Kruger will be perhaps the favorite to replace Suggs' sack production from last season. He had 5.5 sacks in a part-time role last season, and Monday night should be an opportunity for him to get a sack or two. He'll need to get past Bengals offensive linemen like Andrew Whitworth, who is a solid run defender.
The other new starting linebacker is Albert McClellan, who surprisingly beat out Courtney Upshaw for the starting job. McClellan faces a lot of pressure in his new role, and that pressure has only increased with recent domestic violence charges being leveled against him.
This is a crucial game for the young linebacker and his ability to perform under pressure will factor into the defense's success tonight.
Torrey Smith has had mixed results against the Bengals. In the first game, he had a career-high 165 receiving yards. The second game, though, saw him catch only five passes for 33 yards.
Smith looked good during the preseason and consensus around Baltimore seems to be that he can improve upon his impressive rookie season. With Anquan Boldin already in his 30's, the time and opportunity can be there for Smith to replace him as the Ravens' top receiver.
It starts with the game tonight. Smith will need to find separation against Bengals starters Nate Clements and Leon Hall. If he can do so and catch a good number of passes, Smith should help the Ravens pass offense take off in 2012.