What is not good for business is that the Ravens face an uphill battle in their quest for the final playoff spot and for the chance of making it to the playoff tournament for a sixth straight year. The Ravens face a divisional rival, the AFC North Division champion Cincinnati Bengals, that still has something to play for as the Bengals have a chance—a very slim chance, but a chance nonetheless—of snagging the number two seed in the playoff tournament. In addition, the Bengals have a 7-0 record at home this season, with an average margin of victory of close to 18 points. In fact, in the last four home games, the Bengals have a margin of victory 25+ points.
After getting utterly shellacked last week by the New England Patriots where they seemed to lack energy and poise, the Ravens will need to regain their composure this week. With their season on the line, the Ravens will need to have a high level of focus and a strong resolve. History is on their side. In the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era, the Ravens have nine double digit losses, and five of those losses have been by 20 or more points. Following those losses, the Ravens are 9-0, and they have an average margin of victory of close to 20 points. In the utter shellackings (20+ point losses), the Ravens follow that up with a margin of victory of 8+ points.
A 7-0 record versus a 9-0 record. Someone’s impressive streak is going to end.
Resiliency, resolve, and heart have been trademarks of the Harbaugh era, and I fully expect that the Ravens will play hard in what could be the final game of the 2013 season. The Bengals are a team on the verge of getting over the mediocre/pretender label. They are playing this game to stay in the hunt for the number two seed while making a statement to their division rival and defending Super Bowl champions.
Here are the rest of this week’s plotlines.
Not to state the obvious, but the Ravens have been an inconsistent mess on offense all year. They have trouble sustaining drives, and as I wrote last week they have struggled with the big-play on offense.
Specifically, the Ravens have struggled on third down for most of the season. They lead the league with 238 third down attempts, but they are middle-of-the-pack in completion percentage at 37 percent. In the first meeting against the Bengals, the Ravens were an atrocious 3 for 16 on third down—18.7 percent--one of their worst outputs of the season. Without a true running game, the Ravens are hard-pressed to sustain drives.
Also in the first meeting with the Bengals, the Ravens managed a whopping 189 yards of net offense, with an average gain of 2.7 yards per play. Pathetic.
With an injured quarterback, a season-long dormant running game, a sack-happy offensive line, and the season on the line the Ravens need to find some way to generate an offense. The gameplan gurus of offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and wide receivers coach Jim Hostler hopefully have devised a plan that allows freedom, creativity, and unpredictability.
Look for the wildcat, more screen plays to Ray Rice and Torrey Smith, and for the Ravens to attack the middle of the field with tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receiver Marlon Brown against Bengals’ middle linebacker Ray Maualuga and safety George Iloka. And I have a personal plea—please incorporate some rubs and pick plays to free up the receivers in getting separation. Just sayin’.
Pass rush vs. Quick Pass
In the first meeting, Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton had a brutal game. The Ravens’ pass rush was impressive, sacking him five times (Elvis Dumervil lead the pack with three sacks) and forcing him to throw three interceptions.
Dalton did not have much success throwing the ball downfield, as he averaged 5.4 yards per attempt. If you exclude the 51-yard Hail Mary at the end of regulation, Dalton averaged 4.4 yards per attempt.
It may be tough for the Ravens to re-create that amount of a pass rush, but I expect Terrell Suggs and Dumervil to be effective in hurrying Dalton into quick decisions. If the pass rush can get to Dalton, he will make mistakes. According to Pro Football Focus, Dalton is last in the league in completion percentage when under pressure. This is where the secondary needs to do their part by keeping the ball in front of them at all times and by limiting the yards after the catch.
Will Bernard Be Unleashed?
Cincinnati Bengals’ running back Giovani Bernard is a playmaker. As the season has progressed, he has become a more focal point in the teams’ offense. He has a blend of speed and power, and his shiftiness in the open field is difficult to defend.
The Bengals use him very effectively in the screen game (19 yard touchdown in week 10 against the Ravens), so the Ravens need to be alert and have gap integrity. But he also has enough power to be effective between the tackles like he was against the Ravens in week 10 when he had 58 yards on 10 carries.
If the Ravens keep the Bengals’ pass game in check, then they will also need to mind the Bernard-factor.
The Ravens have key players playing with injuries. Flacco has the knee, Rice has thigh and hip injuries, Smith has a quadriceps injury, center Gino Gradkowski is bothered with a knee, and Dumervil still is hampered a bit with his ankle. All signs are pointing to Arthur Jones missing the game because of concussion symptoms. That will be a big blow to the defensive line as it thrusts Terrence Cody and DeAngelo Tyson into more prominent roles.
However, it is week 17 and no NFL team is healthy. The Bengals are missing cornerback Terrance Newman, tight end Tyler Eifert, and tight end Jermaine Gresham and linebacker Vontaze Burfict are questionable.
The Ravens will need to gut this one out just like the Bengals. Again, determination, resilience, pride, and the heart of a champion need to be a part of the equation today in order for the Ravens to secure a victory.
Unsung Player to Watch, aka the “Corey Graham 2012 Postseason Award”
In lieu of a prediction of the score of the game, I will pick a Raven player each week that I think will have an impact on the game. I won’t pick an obvious player (like Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, etc.), but a player that flies a bit under the radar. Think of this as the “Corey Graham 2012 Postseason Award.” Who would have predicted that Graham would have been last year’s postseason-player-of-the-game in Denver?
There are two players this week that will take this honor. Marlon Brown is going to be a difference maker in today’s game for the Ravens.
For the second unsung player award, it will be Ed Reed. That’s right, Ed Reed. He will make a play that will knock out the Miami Dolphins playoff chances, securing a playoff bid for his former team, the Baltimore Ravens.