In a slobber-knocker of a divisional game, the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 13-10 last Sunday to clinch a playoff berth. This is the first time that the Bengals are headed to the playoffs in consecutive years since 1981-82.
Cincinnati played very solid, fundamental football throughout Sunday's game and outplayed the Steelers in almost every category.
The Bengals offense did not look stellar all the way through, but key players Andy Dalton and A.J. Green came through in the clutch. In the fourth quarter, Dalton completed nine of 13 attempts for 107 yards. Green had five of those receptions for 78 yards.
The defense also came through in a huge way. They allowed zero points on three Bengals turnovers (two Dalton picks and a Green fumble). They were also able to pressure Ben Roethlisberger for the duration of the game. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins was the standout player with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
The secondary also locked down on the receivers by picking off Roethlisberger twice. One was returned for the Bengals only touchdown by Leon Hall and the other was nabbed by Reggie Nelson with only seconds remaining. Nelson's interception helped Cincinnati get within range of the winning field goal.
Currently, the Bengals could possibly play any of the four AFC division winners in the first round of the playoffs, depending on how things pan out in Week 17. The team that lands the No. 3 seed will host the Bengals in the first round.
Before Cincinnati has its first playoff game of 2012, they are set to face off against the AFC North division champion Baltimore Ravens in the season finale this week. So far, both head coaches have indicated that they have no intentions on resting any starters.
In his press conference on December 24, Lewis was asked these questions regarding his starters come Sunday.
How do you approach the Ravens game coming up this Sunday since there is nothing at stake in terms of your seeding? Do you approach it differently with guys that might be beaten up by injuries?
I don't really have any beat-up guys. The only thing that is at stake is that you go out and play to win the game every time we go. Win. That's important.
Is there a temptation to rest the starters for maybe a half? You have done it the two previous times in this situation when you went into Week 17 knowing that you were in the playoffs (2005, ’09)?
How'd that work out for us?
This will be a great test for the Bengals, as they will see the caliber of team that they will be facing once the regular season ends.
So, what do the Bengals need to do against the Ravens to create positive morale and go into the postseason on a much needed high note?
Let's take a look at what the Ravens have been doing of late and determine where weaknesses may lie.
At this point, the Ravens remain a bit of a mystery team. Before last Sunday's game, they fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. This was done after the Ravens continued to lose sloppy games with no offensive help.
Even through their struggles, this move left many fans scratching their heads about the decision. Well, so far, it seems to have worked out after huge games by Joe Flacco and Ray Rice in Baltimore's drubbing of the New York Giants last week.
Which Raven's team will we see? The lackluster team that was in a huge slump, or the powerhouse that we saw on the field last week?
The Ravens are a team that desperately needs momentum to carry them into the playoffs. The Bengals are the one team remaining to halt such a trend as they look for momentum of their own.
Currently, the Ravens are a bit banged up. They have multiple injuries to players that may force coach Harbaugh to rest some of his key players on Sunday in order to keep them fresh for the playoffs.
The Ravens defense is not as stout as it once was with a thinned-out secondary and linebacker corps.
The Ravens front is not getting it done as they used to on defense, as they are allowing 4.1 yards per carry to opposing running backs and have just 35 sacks on the season.
On offense, Baltimore has not been quite as dynamic as well. Quarterback Joe Flacco's completion percentage stands at a mediocre 59.8. He has thrown for 22 touchdowns against 10 interceptions for a passer rating of 88.1.
The most dynamic player that Cincinnati needs to watch out for, however, is running back Ray Rice. Rice is currently averaging a strong 4.5 yards per carry and has nine touchdowns on the season.
Rice is a home run threat every time he touches the ball and will be a great challenge for the Bengals defensive front, who are allowing 4 yards per carry against opposing running backs.
Both teams boast positive turnover ratios; however, it is the Ravens that are among the best in the league with a plus-10 margin. Even though the Baltimore defense has given up their fair share of points this year, they have made up for it by creating turnovers.
Offensively, Cincinnati needs to be extra cautious with the football with ball-hawks like safety Ed Reed lurking in the secondary.
The Bengals have also shown of late that they are very capable of handling speedy receivers and are not afraid to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage. This will be crucial for them this week when they take on the shifty Torrey Smith and the proven Anquan Boldin.
The big test for Cincinnati this week will be winning up front in the trenches. This game will hinge on the level of play that the Bengals get from its offensive and defense lines.
Last week, the Bengals were held to a mere 14 rushing yards against Pittsburgh. This was astounding after the way that Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis had been carrying the ball lately. Green-Ellis did not have fewer than 89 rushing yards in his previous five games. Center Kyle Cook took all of the snaps at the position, and rookie Trevor Robinson was forced to watch from the sidelines.
Cook is a veteran and is very physical, but last week showed that the more athletic Robinson could be a better fit on this line in run blocking. Robinson is very light on his feet and can create a low center of gravity, which makes it difficult for the larger defensive tackles in the league.
On the defensive side of the ball, Cincinnati's line needs to keep its mean streak going and continuously pressure the quarterback. Having constant pressure in the pocket quickens a quarterback's internal clock and can force him to throw earlier than he would like. This creates unbalanced, off-target tosses that give the secondary a good chance to make a play.
Aside from pressuring the quarterback, the defensive line and linebackers always need to keep a keen eye out for Ray Rice.
Rice is used in so many different ways in the Baltimore offense. He will line up in the backfield to collect a handoff, run toward the sidelines for a swing pass or get behind his huge linemen for a screen. Rice has also been motioned out of the backfield at times to line up as a wide receiver.
This will be the task for Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga on Sunday. Containing Rice means containing the Baltimore offense. These linebackers will have to be at their best to contain such an explosive back.
Finally, because of the thin Ravens secondary, this is the week that Andy Dalton and company need to get things rolling in the passing game.
Many thought Dalton would break out of his "slump" against a porous Eagles secondary and a depleted Steelers secondary. That did not happen. This is Dalton's final chance at getting a groove going with his receivers going into the playoffs.
Cincinnati can not afford to be one-dimensional in the postseason. Even with its defense playing so well, the Bengals need to have a balanced offensive attack if they want to make a run against these elite AFC teams.
It all starts this week against another playoff team. The Bengals will be searching for a win against the Ravens to gain a nice head of steam heading into the playoffs poised to make a deep run.