The 10-5 Cincinnati Bengals might already have the AFC North division crown locked down. They know that whenever they take the field for their first playoff game of the season, it will take place on their home field.
However, the Bengals will earn themselves a heavy dose of postseason momentum with a defeat of the Ravens on Sunday. Though little is technically on the line, they need to win this game.
This is this third consecutive season the Bengals have made the playoffs, but the team hasn't won a postseason game since 1990. Quarterback Andy Dalton has shown steady improvement over his three-year career—a career that non-coincidentally has corresponded with those three straight playoff berths—but if he's to be taken seriously as a franchise quarterback, he needs to get his team a win in January.
|Bengals Playoff Appearances, 1990-Present|
|1990||Wild Card||vs. Houston Oilers||W, 41-14|
|1990||Divisional||at Los Angeles Raiders||L, 20-10|
|2005||Wild Card||vs. Pittsburgh Steelers||L, 31-17|
|2009||Wild Card||vs. New York Jets||L, 24-14|
|2011||Wild Card||at Houston Texans||L, 31-10|
|2012||Wild Card||at Houston Texans||L, 19-13|
|2013 Wild Card Opponent, TBD|
What helps is that the Bengals face the Ravens in Cincinnati, where the Bengals haven't lost all year. Even better, the Bengals have scored 40 or more points in their last four home games. A decisive victory and 40 or more points scored is just what the Bengals need on Sunday to feel confident for a deep playoff run this year.
This confidence boost will be essential for the Bengals. Though the Ravens are among four AFC teams in the hunt for the conference's sixth playoff spot, the team with the easiest path is the Miami Dolphins, the Bengals' new nemesis.
Last season, a loss to the Dolphins set off a four-game losing streak. This year's loss led to a losing streak capped at two games. The Week 11 41-20 drubbing of the Cleveland Browns that came after those two losses was still not Dalton's finest moment. He completed under 50 percent of his passes in the win, for only 93 yards. While he threw three touchdowns, he also threw two interceptions.
Being mentally ready for the Dolphins to potentially come to town next week will be the Bengals' biggest key to that rare postseason win. Dispatching the Ravens, last season's Super Bowl champions, can put the Bengals in the right frame of mind during this all-important time of year.
Further, the hallmark of a true playoff contender is their ability to defeat the teams they should on paper and be able to handle easily. The Ravens are just that. Though they are incumbent Super Bowl champions, much is different about this season's Ravens.
The Bengals are averaging a seventh-in-the-league 26.4 points per game and 34.4 points per game at home. They rank second in red-zone touchdown percentage at 74.42 percent. In contrast, Baltimore is averaging only 20.2 points per game this year and has a red-zone touchdown percentage of only 47.92 percent and have scored 30 points only once thus far.
Of Baltimore's 303 points scored this year, 131 have come from field goals and extra points from the foot of their kicker, Justin Tucker. While it's nice to have such a clutch kicker, scoring touchdowns is even better. The Ravens have not managed as many as last year. Hence, their low red-zone touchdown percentage.
With the Bengals defense allowing only 19.2 points per game and 16.7 at home, the Ravens have not been much of a scoring threat this year—a commanding win is in Cincinnati's grasp. The Bengals have shown the ability to win games in many ways this year, and any of those blueprints could pay off against the Ravens on Sunday.
Dalton's arm has brought them to victory, like in Week 7 against the Detroit Lions, Week 8 against the New York Jets and Week 16 against the Minnesota Vikings.
A balanced offense with strong passing matched with equally good running got them wins in Week 2 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, in Week 6 against the Buffalo Bills, in Week 13 against the San Diego Chargers and in Week 14 against the Indianapolis Colts. Even their defense and special teams have won them games, such as in Week 5 against the New England Patriots and Week 11 against the Browns.
That only further highlights just how much balance, depth and talent the Bengals boast in every corner of their roster. Few teams can say the same thing—and the Ravens aren't one of them. Putting this on display on Sunday and making it known will cement the Bengals' status as worthy playoff contenders and help them fly a little less under the radar before the postseason's first kickoff.
Momentum in the NFL—whether game-by-game or within any given game—is mostly a myth. It's not necessary to be the hot team heading into the playoffs in order to make a successful run at the Lombardi Trophy. It doesn't hurt, however—and it has happened 10 times for Super Bowl winners between 1990 and 2012.
The Bengals not won a playoff game in 23 years. Now, they are on the verge of establishing themselves as both the AFC North's new guard and a true Super Bowl contender. Building confidence with a big home win to close the regular season sets them on a good path.
The Ravens are a team the Bengals can and should beat this Sunday. If they do, and if momentum in the NFL exists in any form, the Bengals will have it at just the right time.