An all-AFC North clash that may get slightly, and wrongly, lost in the shuffle on Sunday will be played between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals could have sealed a bye in the first round of the playoffs had they not lost to the Denver Broncos on Monday. Now, they have to beat Baltimore and hope that Denver loses to the San Diego Chargers, or that the Kansas City Chiefs can do them a favour and beat the Oakland Raiders, which would secure the AFC West for the Chiefs at the expense of the Broncos, handing the number 2 seed to the Bengals by default. Get it? The Ravens have had a lost season, but beat the Pittsburgh Steelers against all bets last weekend to all-but end the Steelers once lofty playoff ambitions. Baltimore would love nothing more than to shove it to the Bengals too, living to the mantra “If we can’t have it, you can’t have it either”.
Three Keys to the Game:
Battle of the backups
Mallett has provided a solution to the Ravens quarterback conundrum since Joe Flacco’s season ending ACL and PCL injury against the St. Louis Rams. Despite having been on the team just a few days, Mallett played like a veteran of Marc Trestman’s offense last week against the Steelers, providing a welcome tonic for the turnover plagued games of Matt Schaub and Jimmy Clausen. Having basically signed on the dotted line to be Flacco’s back-up in 2016, this will provide another ample stage for the strong-armed quarterback to strut his stuff against another AFC North rival. A.J McCarron, on the other hand, lost a big game last week, having come in for Andy Dalton and his broken thumb. He will be looking to take a leaf from Mallett’s book and prove that he can sling it with the best, while preventing from turning the ball over like he did at the end of the loss to the Broncos, and throughout his first appearance in another loss against the Steelers.
How do you solve a problem like A.J Green?
Deen Pees, Ravens defensive coordinator, said the best way for A.J Green to be stopped would be for him to be inactive. He wouldn’t be too wrong either, with Green being the Ravens biggest nemesis in their previous meetings. In their last meeting, in Week 4, he had 10 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns, seemingly saving his best for Baltimore’s secondary. It will be interesting to see how he gets on without being on the receiving end of passes from Andy Dalton, with another A.J (McCarron) performing in the Red-Rifle’s stead.
Who wants it more?
Plainly, the Ravens have nothing to gain and the Bengals have everything to gain in this match. However, it may not play out like that. Nobody gave the Ravens a hope in hell of beating the Steelers last week, especially as the Steelers had everything to play for. That didn’t stop Baltimore from beating Pittsburgh. It may be a case of deja vu again this weekend, with the Bengals almost certainly needing to win to have a chance at getting a first round playoff bye. But if the Bengals start feeling like the game is too physical for their starters to last, they may go conservative and rest some key individuals in order to preserve them for the playoffs.
Match-up to watch: Jimmy Smith vs A.J Green
Smith had his best game of the season last weekend against the Steelers, with two tackles, two passes defended, one interception and a 101-yard touchdown return of another interception that was nullified by a Courtney Upshaw offside penalty. In contrast, he allowed Green to walk all over him in their Week 4 matchup as mentioned earlier. With Smith trending up, and Green not having his first choice quarterback throwing to him, it should be a far closer battle this time around.
Prediction: Cincinnati Bengals
It’s a far tougher game that it looks on paper, but the Bengals appear to have the Ravens number of late. It may not be enough for a first round bye, but Cincinnati will want to do everything they can to give them a glimmer of hope that they can avoid going one-and-done again in the playoffs in 2015. That starts by finishing the regular season strongly.