The Baltimore Ravens picked up another win today as they narrowly defeated the upstart Cincinnati Bengals. The game was a crucial one for both teams as the Ravens needed a win to take the lead in the AFC North while the Bengals needed the win to keep pace in the wild-card chase.
Now with a win today, the Ravens are not only first in their division but back to first in the conference. Yet again they were able to follow up a miserable upset loss with a huge victory against a good team. Their win over the Bengals gives them four wins over AFC teams with winning records.
The Ravens sure made it interesting, though. Although they had leads of 10 and 17 points, the Bengals still found a way to stay in the game. Even with three interceptions, Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton showed poise and kept Ravens fans on edge until the final incomplete pass.
Here are six observations from the Ravens victory today.
Before this week the Ravens' last interception was against Ben Roethlisberger two weeks ago. It wasn't a long turnover drought, but for a Ravens team that thrives on turnovers, it needed to end. In their three losses, the Ravens only have one interception.
Today that slump ended with a bang. Dalton was picked off three times, two of which led to quick offensive touchdowns.
Ed Reed grabbed the first one out the end zone, bringing an end to a promising Bengals offensive drive. Lardarius Webb made a difficult catch for the second interception as he dove to catch the ball. Finally, rookie Jimmy Smith got his first career interception and returned it 16 yards before fumbling it—thankfully the Ravens were able to recover it.
Obviously, the picks were huge as they are in any situation. Reed ended a nine-game streak with no interceptions, the longest streak of his Hall of Fame career. Both his interception and Webb's give them three on the season, tying them for the team lead.
It was also great to see Smith have the first significant playing time in his young career. Like Reed, he needs to hold onto the ball and realize that simply going down is better than losing the ball. Despite the fumble, Smith played well in his first game seeing extended playing time.
"Struggle" is a bit of a relative term here. The Ravens still have one of the NFL's elite run defenses, and Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott only had around 40 rushing yards each, so today wasn't terrible.
Still, as I mentioned last week, the run defense hasn't quite been as good this year as it normally is. In their losses, the other team has broken down the defense by running the ball successfully and negating the pass rush. And unlike in past years, the rush defense hasn't held strong in the red zone, as demonstrated by Benson's two rushing touchdowns today.
An interesting test awaits the Ravens on Thanksgiving when San Francisco 49ers star running back Frank Gore comes to town. Gore has been a huge factor in the 49ers' ball control offense, so stopping him will be very important. Even if Ray Lewis is hurt, the Ravens are going to have to find a way to contain him and make Alex Smith beat the Ravens defense.
Five carries last week had to be the low point of Ray Rice's season. There's just no reason to give your star player five carries on the road when your passing game is struggling. Thankfully the Ravens got it back to Rice and he delivered with 104 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Most of these carries came in a 59-yard scamper in the third quarter. Still the Bengals have the third-best run defense in the league, so getting more than 100 rushing yards against them is a good accomplishment. The running game's success also helped to open up the success that the Ravens saw with the deep passing game.
Rice also had five catches for 43 yards, which gave him the second most receptions on their team this week. He continues to be a major part of the receiving game, more so than most running backs in the league. This game proved to be another example that when Rice gets the ball, the Ravens have a better chance at winning.
Twice the Ravens built up leads of 10-plus points over the Bengals. Both times the Bengals came back to bring the game within a touchdown. On both of these drives the Bengals moved the ball at will against the Ravens as they covered long distances of field in a short time.
Both drives were disturbing as the Ravens had opportunities to put the Bengals away. The last drive in particular was worrying as the Bengals came very close to tying the game. Although the Ravens bent, they did not break as they successfully stopped the Bengals only 17 yards away from the end zone.
As good as Dalton is playing, it's disconcerting that he's already moving the ball with such great ease against the Ravens. There is definitely reason to believe he will become a very good quarterback, but that doesn't mean the Ravens have to help him out, as they surrendered 373 passing yards to the rookie.
With the win over the Bengals, the Ravens are now 3-0 in the AFC North. Since they have swept the Pittsburgh Steelers, they essentially own the tiebreaker over them although their records are currently the same. They are also a game up on the Bengals, whom they don't face again until the regular season finale.
Even with the three losses to mediocre teams, the Ravens continue to prove they belong among the elite teams. They have now defeated every good team they have played this year, which is huge in terms of playoff positioning. When they show up to play, the Ravens really have the ability to beat anyone.
The Bengals are clearly a good team, much better than anyone thought coming off their 4-12 season last year. However, their losses the last two weeks have shown they are not yet in the same class as the Steelers and the Ravens. The AFC North will come down to these two teams, and with the Ravens having the tiebreaker, you have to like their chances.
This was the first time Ray Lewis had to miss a game due to injury since Week 17 of the 2007 season. The loss was surprising given the fact that his injury hadn't seemed too significant. Although it does seem minor, it hurt Lewis enough that he sat out the game today and he could still miss the game on Thursday.
Even on the sideline Lewis made a difference in the game. It's hard to say he was truly inactive as he stood on the sideline, actively watched the game and gave feedback to his teammates. He even broke down the team huddle before the game as he does every week when healthy.
Lewis proved himself a true leader by leading despite injury, but it was great to see the defense play well without their star player. Hopefully next week he will be out there on the field to enjoy the win in uniform.