Justin Tucker's game-winner saved Baltimore's season.
In their most important game of the season, the Baltimore Ravens squeaked out a win over the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals. As you would expect from a victory, there were some positives to take away but there were also some worrying aspects of Baltimore's performance.
The offense was once again a non-factor, with poor offensive line play dooming both the rushing and aerial attacks. On the flip side, the defense was spectacular and forced Andy Dalton into one of his worst games of the year.
Looking back on the critical game, here are the most important things you need to know.
Jim Caldwell has shown a willingness to be creative with his play-calling.
With the offense struggling to get going all season, we’ve seen offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell get creative in an effort to jump-start the floundering unit.
The offensive output didn’t wow anybody, but it’s good to see the offense using different formations and plays to keep defenses guessing.
Against Cincinnati, they used a flea-flicker that sprung Jacoby Jones wide open over the top of the defense. Unfortunately, Joe Flacco underthrew the pass, but Jones drew a pass interference penalty which put Baltimore in the red zone where they scored their first touchdown.
On that same red-zone trip, Haloti Ngata took the field for the offense and lined up as a blocker on the goal line.
Later in the game, Tyrod Taylor saw some action and picked up the longest run of the game on an end-around.
The offense was still anemic en route to 189 total yards, but the aggressiveness was evident throughout the game.
This matchup saw a continued usage of a spread attack and even more of the Pistol formation. This type of creativity is one of Jim Caldwell's more impressive traits, and we can expect to see more tinkering as the season progresses.
The scoreboard was in Baltimore's favor, but it wasn't reflective of their offensive output.
Slow starts had been a problem for the Ravens all season. Before this week, they had gained an average of 57 yards in the first quarter.
As a result of their inability to move the ball, they usually found themselves playing catch-up and having to claw their way back from deficits.
That wasn’t the case against the Bengals, as they took a 17-point lead into halftime. The scoreboard doesn’t tell the whole story, however.
They took advantage of good field position to score their points, but the offense still sputtered and only picked up 94 yards in the first 30 minutes.
Playing with a lead was a new feeling for the Ravens, but they were bailed out by penalties, a failed fourth-down conversion and a turnover.
The offense still has a long way to go before it can lead the team to victories.
Joe Flacco was once again excellent on the ground.
The man with the $120-million arm has been more impressive with his legs in recent weeks.
Joe Flacco has been under a ton of pressure in the pocket this year, but he’s shown the ability to remain calm, move his feet in the pocket and extend plays when necessary.
In fact, Baltimore’s first touchdown of the game was a result of Flacco’s feet. The pocket collapsed, but Flacco was able to fight past defenders and found Dallas Clark in the back of the end zone to get the Ravens on the board.
It’s not something that we want to see so frequently, but Flacco has grown by leaps and bounds in this regard.
Unfortunately, the offensive line's pass protection has wavered all year, so it's likely that Flacco will need to continue to make plays with his legs.
Dallas Clark found the end zone against the Bengals.
Without Dennis Pitta on the field, the production from the tight end position has been disappointing and inconsistent this season.
Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark had combined to catch 32 passes for 375 yards entering Sunday's contest, but the emergence of the young wide receivers has softened the blow of those meager numbers.
A promising sign in recent weeks, however, has been Dallas Clark’s performance in the red zone.
He’s caught three touchdowns in the last four games, all of which have come from within 20 yards of the end zone. Clark has developed chemistry with Joe Flacco in the red zone, and that’s a welcomed sign for the Ravens offense moving forward.
They still need to work on actually getting down the field into the red zone, but Clark's production will help them convert once they get near the goal line.
Bernard Pierce looked like the better back against Cincinnati.
It’s no secret that the Ravens running backs have been dreadful this season.
Despite this, Baltimore has consistently attempted to keep Ray Rice involved by giving him touches, and rightfully so. After all, Rice is one of the best offensive players on the team, and the struggles of the running game have more to do with the offensive line than the backs.
Against Cincinnati, however, Bernard Pierce had some success with limited touches and looked like the better runner.
Pierce has been plagued by injuries all year, but he finally showed power and explosiveness on Sunday. Rice, on the other hand, looked tentative and gained only 30 yards on 18 carries.
Bernard Pierce only had eight rushing attempts, and the disparity was was a little confusing. Rice still needs to be on the field more because of his prowess as a receiver and a pass-blocker, but it may be time for Pierce to get a larger share of the carries moving forward. He should not receive more than Rice, but it should be closer to a 50-50 split from here on out.
Andy Dalton had a rough day at the office.
The most noticeable aspect of the game was how frequently the Ravens disrupted Andy Dalton, as he was sacked five times and hurried on many of his dropbacks.
It wasn’t just Terrell Suggs either, as Elvis Dumervil notched 2.5 sacks and other linemen like Arthur Jones, Chris Canty and DeAngelo Tyson put pressure on Dalton as well.
The Bengals offensive line is one of the better groups in the NFL, so it was a testament to the significant improvements that were made to the Ravens pass-rushing unit over the offseason.
In addition, the secondary played pretty well, for the most part, which gave the front seven enough time to get after Dalton.
Cincinnati's offense is stocked with playmakers like A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard. The fact that the Ravens held Dalton to a sub-50 completion percentage and a passer rating of 52.2 is impressive.
Baltimore's defense was elite and carried them to the victory. Now, they just need to keep playing at that level—especially on the road.
John Harbaugh's club has cause to celebrate...for now.
Make no bones about it: this was a must-win game for the Baltimore Ravens.
Even with seven games still left to play, a Cincinnati win would have made it nearly impossible for the Ravens to win the AFC North, and they would have needed other teams to play poorly to leapfrog the rest of the competition vying for the second wild-card spot.
By no means can they afford to take their foot off the gas, but Baltimore still controls its own destiny, for the most part.
The win cuts the Bengals division lead to 1.5 games, a not-so-insurmountable advantage considering these two teams face each other in Week 17.
According to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, head coach John Harbaugh has been talking all week about the power of momentum. Perhaps this victory can set the Ravens on the correct path to the postseason.