The Ravens might already be AFC North champions, but that doesn't mean they should take it easy on the Bengals on Sunday.
The Baltimore Ravens have both a playoff berth and the AFC North title wrapped up headed into their Week 17 meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals, but that doesn't mean they've proven all they needed to this season. Home-field advantage in the AFC is up for grabs, and beyond that, the Ravens need to head into next week's first playoff game with momentum on their side.
At 10-5, the Ravens have bounced back well from the three-game losing streak they were on before dominating the New York Giants last Sunday, 33-14. But with both their offense and defense playing inconsistently throughout the season—thanks in part to extensive defensive injuries and poor offensive play calling by now-former coordinator Cam Cameron—it's important that they keep that inconsistency in their past.
What better way to prove it than by dispatching another playoff-bound team in the final week of the season?
If the Ravens look like the team they were last week—with quarterback Joe Flacco completing an impressive 25 of his 36 pass attempts for 309 yards and two passing and one rushing touchdowns, running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce combining for 230 yards and their defense putting up three sacks, all while holding the Giants to just 186 total yards—the Bengals don't stand a chance.
On offense, it's about staying on the path they forged last week.
It appears that new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell's system has taken hold somewhat, allowing Flacco more creative use of his receivers, with more routes, more passing variations and, of course, a return to using the no-huddle. And with Pierce out-gaining Rice on the ground (with 123 rush yards on 14 carries, to 107 yards on 24 for Rice), even if Rice gets little or no playing time on Sunday in preparation for the playoffs, their ground attack will be in good hands.
It's all about defense, therefore, if the Ravens are to complete their sweep of the Bengals. The key in doing so will be to force them into one-dimensionality on offense. That means yet again coming up big in stopping the run and forcing Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to pass.
Last week, the Ravens held the Giants to just 67 yards on the ground. Granted, New York ran just 14 run plays, as they were playing catch-up from practically their first snap, but even without a lead, it doesn't mean the Ravens cannot keep the BenJarvus Green-Ellis-led run game in check.
Though the Pittsburgh Steelers ultimately fell to the Bengals last week, it wasn't because of Cincinnati putting up yards and points from its ground attack. In fact, Cincinnati's run game produced just seven yards of offense at halftime (on 10 Green-Ellis carries) and ended the day with just 14 total rush yards, all belonging to Green-Ellis on 15 carries.
With Green-Ellis far more effective when making straightforward pushes up the middle rather than bouncing to the outside, there's a clear blueprint for how to keep him contained, therefore forcing the Bengals into a pass-first, pass-always offensive approach.
Cutting off the run game also prevents Dalton from finding any success out of play-action passing, which is the most effective way for him to buy enough time to target wide receiver A.J. Green in the deep end of the field.
Though Baltimore's secondary did an excellent job keeping the Giants' receivers covered last week (Hakeem Nicks had no catches, and no Giants receiver had more than 43 yards on the day), it's been a mixed-bag in coverage this year, so any help it can get up front in keeping the ball out of Green's hands, the better.
The main concern for Baltimore's offense will be keeping Flacco protected. He was excellent last week against New York's pass rush, completing 78.6 percent of his passes under pressure and 66.7 percent of them when facing the blitz. But that hasn't always been the case this season. Further, with 47 sacks, the Bengals have one of the best pass-rushing defensive fronts in the league.
If last week's win was any indication, the Ravens are better off when they have a sense of balance on offense, and they, too, need to be careful not to be forced into one-dimensionality, or the Bengals could beat them at their own game.
Even with the postseason and the divisional title locked down, the Ravens cannot skate into Week 17 without putting up a fight. There's a lot to be said for finishing the season strongly and treating the final game like there's something more at stake.
Indeed, a notch in the win column should be motivation enough for the Ravens, but beyond that, they need to continue to send a message to the rest of the AFC's playoff field—of which the Bengals are included—that they're a dangerous team with the capability of reaching and winning the Super Bowl, their earlier struggles fully behind them.