Since their arrival, the Baltimore Ravens have always been an oversized group of mongrels who produced wins in the most blue-collared fashion; slowly and painfully rolling over their opposition.
They have been the most sustained threat to Pittsburgh's divisional supremacy since the inception of the AFC North, and because of amenities like a general manager with a keen eye for talent and a top-ranked stadium, the Ravens have become one of the league's more reputable franchises.
But for whatever reason, the Bengals have Baltimore's number more often than not, having won six of the last 10 games against the Nevermores. With the exception of the opener last season—which was a dubious sign of worse to come—Carson Palmer has played exceptionally well against a defense that traditionally gives quarterbacks nightmares. Cincinnati returns with an irritating rap at the window pane that will once again drive the Ravens mad with another loss.
The offense will finally purr at full speed this Sunday as the Bengals are likely to use more spread formations in order to stretch out that fearsome front seven of the Baltimore defense. Like Pittsburgh, no one runs very well against Ray Lewis and his flock of Hitchcock-like Birds. They rank first against the run through the first four games and finished third last season. Haloti Ngata eats up running backs when they try to run up the middle, Ray Lewis is somehow still getting better, and Terrell Suggs still looks like Disney's Stitch.
The secondary also has its superstar in Ed Reed, but the other members look surprisingly vulnerable to be dressed in purple and black. In Week 2, Phillip Rivers threw for over 400 yards and Vincent Jackson caught multiple deep balls over the Ravens' secondary. Last week, Tom Brady spread his passes around to nine different receivers, and exploited openings in the middle of the field. As long as the protection holds up, teams can pass against this defense, and the Bengals passing-game has been limited to short stuff all season. I see this match-up as the perfect chance for the receivers to get loose and find space on deeper routes and for Carson to get in rhythm and find more success around the sidelines.
On defense, stopping Ray Rice will have to be the top priority. Rice is elusive, compact, and is a terrific receiving running back. Baltimore runs a lot of shotgun formations and likes to give it to Rice on delays and draws. I would expect to see plenty of three-receiver sets against the Bengals which would force a a safety or linebacker to guard Rice in the flats. Too much attention to Rice on these formations could also leave Todd Heap open, and more mismatches ensue. When Rice exits the game, Willis McGahee becomes the focal point, but McGahee is less dynamic than Rice and can be contained in a more traditional manner. An emphasis in pass coverage will be on Dhani Jones whose speed dissipates a little more each game.
The Ravens' receivers aren't scary enough to double cover and it seems that packing the middle of the field is wiser than loading up zone coverages deep and around the sidelines. Joe Flacco moves well outside of the pocket and can make throws on the run. Like Roethlisberger, Flacco should be contained inside the pocket, and a reinforced “box” in the middle, packed with linebackers and safeties, should help with contain Flacco. I suspect that the Bengals will feel comfortable calling more blitz packages on throwing downs thanks to their faith they should have in their corners in one-on-one coverage.
If the Bengals are a changed team with a new identity, and if they truly are built to win in this division, than this is the kind of showdown where they can prove to the world and themselves that they are for real. I doubted them against the Steelers and they rose to the occasion. This time, not only do I think that they will win, I see them having their best complete offensive game of this young season and outclass the Ravens.
Bengals 34, Ravens 27
Mojokong---my deepest condolences go out to Mike Zimmer and his family for the tragic loss of his wife, Vikki.