Heading into their Week Five showdown with one another, the Baltimore Ravens are keen on bouncing back after a close loss against the New England Patriots last week, while the Cincinnati Bengals want to keep their momentum going after a three-game winning streak.
Something’s gotta give.
Much of what happens this Sunday in the first big AFC North inter-division game of the season will rely on the shoulders of the quarterbacks. The Bengals’ Carson Palmer has had a bit of a return to form this season after missing much of last year, while Joe Flacco has brought more and more credibility to the Ravens' offense every week.
Though there’s another quarterback in the division with two Super Bowl rings, Palmer has often been regarded as one of the elite passers in the game, let alone the AFC North. But Flacco has gotten a lot of attention in only his second year in the NFL, and already has two more playoff victories then Palmer has.
Both signal-callers will need to bring their A-games if they want their clubs to be successful this weekend. Palmer can reassert his prowess as the best quarterback in the division and get his team sole possession of first place in the AFC North. Likewise for Flacco, except a strong performance for him can slide him past Palmer in the eyes of fans and media alike.
“He does everything better [than last season],” said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. “Just across the board, we’re able to attack people in more ways than we did at any tim last year, and that’s because Joe is executing more things well because he’s seen more.”
Palmer has had success against the Ravens defense in the past, and the secondary this year has proven to be a beatable bunch. If Palmer is his regular precise self, it could spell trouble for Baltimore.
But assuming Flacco maintains his current pace, the Bengals will have to be on their toes just as much. With the winning team getting the early nod as division leader, whichever quarterback outperforms the other will solidify themselves that much more as face of their franchise. Ravens fans are optimistic that Flacco is up to the challenge.
But there will be other factors at play, as well. Every NFL game has a few key matchups which will determine the outcome to a greater degree, but this week’s Ravens/Bengals game has some very intriguing ones, for one reason or another.
Ravens OT Michael Oher vs. Bengals DE Antwan Odom: Assuming Jared Gaither sits out due a neck injury he suffered last week, rookie tackle Michael Oher will make his first career start at left tackle after playing the first four games at right. It’s a credit to Oher’s skills as a lineman that he can play at that level so early in his career, as well as the guidance of Ravens offensive line coaches John Matsko and Andy Moeller.
“Mike was a left tackle in college. That helped him, but he works on it every week,” Harbaugh noted. “John does a great job of moving those guys around, so we’ve got different backup plans.”
If Oher does get the nod, he’ll have his hands full with the NFL’s current sack leader Antwan Odom, who has taken the quarterback down eight times in the first four games of the season.
But Flacco is confident in Oher, as well as the rest of his protection.
“I’m not going to really pay too much attention to it. I’ve got to make sure I feel comfortable back there,” Flacco said. “Our offensive line has been doing a great job all year so I don’t feel like there is any reason to pay any extra attention to it.”
Still, Oher will be the main linchpin. In only the fifth game of his career, he’ll need to find a way to handle Odom.
Ravens CB Domonique Foxworth vs. Bengals WR Chad Ochocino: An argument could be made that it will be Ochocinco vs. the entire defense, with as much trash talk has he’s initiated this week. Ochocinco has been calling out Foxworth, fellow corner Fabian Washington and even Ray Lewis via his Twitter feed and in interviews throughout the week.
It may be all in good fun, and many of the Ravens have treated it as such, but they know how big a treat no. 85 can be. Foxworth will be covering Ochocinco throughout the afternoon, and will need to find a way to contain him, in hopes that no one gets to see the “Ricky Bobby” dance he’s promised after he scores.
The bottom line: The Bengals are back after a relatively unhealthy 2008 and ready to challenge the Ravens for division supremacy. But the Ravens have been, and are ready for, all takers. The winner will have a significant leg-up in the AFC North standings, and in a league where every division game matters so much, it could mean repercussions at the end of the season and beyond.