The Ravens, once a perennial postseason team, missed the playoffs for the third time in the last four years. In many ways, their 8-8 record was an accomplishment considering all of the injuries they suffered. The team relied heavily on veterans from their 2012 championship team, but guys like Joe Flacco, Steve Smith Sr. and Terrell Suggs failed to get enough help from young reinforcements. A 3-0 start was quickly washed away by four straight losses, and a heartbreaking Week 16 loss to Pittsburgh ended their playoff chances.
The Bengals had a streak of five straight postseason appearances snapped after a 6-9-1 season. The team seemed to be suffering a letdown from their ugly playoff loss to Pittsburgh in 2015, and their inconsistency meant they didn’t put together a two-game winning streak until Weeks 12 and 13, when it was far too late. An early injury to star receiver AJ Green hamstrung the offense, while the defense only found its stride at the end of the year, when they held six out of their last seven opponents below 20 points.
As Joe Goes – Flacco is one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in the game. On the one hand, people can’t forget his brilliant 2012 postseason run. On the other, there’s statistical evidence like what he put up last year, when he tossed just 20 TD’s against 15 interceptions, that he is the key to this offense. In his defense, he’s been lacking a game-breaking receiver for some time and hasn’t had a star running back since the Ray Rice days. Now age 32, he’s at a turning point in his career and starts out with a tough opponent.
In the Mix – The Bengals still have their running back duo of Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard on the roster, but it’s Joe Mixon who has fans excited. The Oklahoma product fell to the Bengals in the second round and has breakaway ability that the backfield has lacked the past few seasons. Although Hill is still the nominal starter, Mixon figures to be in this game early and testing the Ravens linebackers with his exceptional skills.
Not-So-Secret Weapon – The Bengals drafted a kicker this year in Jake Elliott, only to have him lose the job in the preseason to journeyman Randy Bullock. It’s understandable that they would want to improve their kicking game, since they have an example within their division of kicking excellence in the Ravens’ Justin Tucker. In a close contest like this one figures to be, Tucker’s right leg could mean more than anything in deciding the victor.
Matchup to watch
Bengals WR AJ Green vs. Ravens CB Jimmy Smith – These two are used to knocking heads and, when healthy, they are two of the finest options in the NFL at their respective positions. Both have been battling injuries with regularity the past few seasons but appear to be healthy right now, which means they could be dueling all game long. The Bengals offense revolves around big plays to Green, so Smith has to be ready to take that away.
Fantasy football tip
RB Terrance West – You would be hard-pressed to find a starting NFL running back who receives less Fantasy love than West. But with no Kenneth Dixon to siphon carries and Danny Woodhead mostly a receiving option, West will likely get the bulk of the carries on Sunday. He can be had at a surprisingly low price in DFS drafts.
Prediction: Cincinnati Bengals 22-10 Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens just don’t appear to have the solutions on offense for what should be a solid Bengals defense, while Cincinnati has the playmakers to create more than enough scoring chances.
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