CINCINNATI - DECEMBER 26: Roy Williams #31 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates after recovering a fumble during the NFL game against the San Diego Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium on December 26 2010 in Cincinnati Ohio. The Bengals 34-20. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
As the season winds to a close, the Bengals attempt to go out with their heads held high and their spirits in tact as they look ahead to the murky waters of the future. It is probably difficult for the men in that locker room not to gloss over the match up with the Baltimore Ravens without knowing whether their place on the team is secure beyond that game or not. On the bright side, Cincinnati is coming off of a two-game win streak which sounds modest to most standards but is something of a highlight for this year's bunch. With the higher-profile receivers on the roster shelved for the last game, the Bengals will continue to keep a close eye on the development of the promising younger players who have added a spark to a largely underachieving offense. Bengal fans and coaches are curious to see if Carson Palmer can continue his hot streak with the inexperienced backups, but if it's one thing these guys have shown, it's that when given the chance, they can make the plays necessary to at least give their team a chance to win.
On the slightly more dismal side, they face a team who has plenty to play for. Baltimore could lock up a first-round bye to the playoffs with a win and some help from the Cleveland Browns, and anybody thinking that's not a big deal, clearly doesn't know too much about football. Expect the Ravens to come out with guns blazing in an attempt to put away a struggling team early so that they can hopefully limit the snaps of their starters to prepare for a playoff run. The Raisins boast a mighty offensive artillery that employs three super-quality receivers, three legitimate backs, and a veteran tight end poised to return from injury. If that weren't enough, they also have a quarterback who has struggled to gain the notoriety he deserves across the league, even though in his two previous years in the NFL, he has led his team deep into the playoffs. Add in a perennially tip-top defense to the Ravens, coupled with the team's home finale, and you have yourself a damn-near impossible task trying to beat this group.
If the Bengals are able to escape as victors, they will end the season on a substantial high-note, which might convince team ownership that few changes are necessary after all. Such a bittersweet outcome may placate team supporters in the short term—because everyone enjoys seeing their team win—but may also be a curse in disguise as keeping the team's personnel in tact after an overall failure of a season could lead to further mediocrity or worse in the near future. Regardless of the game's outcome, it seems safe to say that most Bengal observers are likely more interested in the happenings after the season than they are in the chance of winning a meager fifth game. Nonetheless, the game will be played and therefore, must be adequately previewed.
Ravens offense vs. Bengals defense
As has been the theme lately, the Ravens will look to attack the Bengals secondary whose reserves have been ravaged by injury. Starter Leon Hall has remained the healthiest of the defensive backs and is good to go again this week, but fellow starter Johnathan Joseph has missed practice time again this week and may have to sit out yet another game in the finale. Even with Joseph in there, Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offensive brain-trust will likely attack the ailing defensive backfield, especially the nickel who will be forced to cover supreme slot guy, and familiar foe, T.J. Houshmandzadeh. We know Housh to be a reliable target, especially on third down and after a soft showing in the teams' first game, he is probably eager to get back at the team that let him walk in free agency. If the Bengals make it too much of a priority to stop T.J., they would risk leaving the bulky yet fast Anquan Boldin and the aged yet still effective Derrick Mason alone in vulnerable one-on-one match-ups. Even if Cincinnati manages to cover all three receivers, they then risk leaving open veteran tight end Todd Heap, or the promising rookie pair of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. Then, if somehow all of these men are somehow accounted for, Flacco can still look for their dangerous running backs, Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain, to catch key passes on screens and checkoffs coming out of the backfield.
The Ravens offense is armed to the teeth with unique yet equally harmful weapons—the sort of collection we Bengal fans thought we too had and would enjoy watching all season. Obviously Baltimore, a franchise that finds new ways to win plenty of games every season, succeeded with their stockpiling while Cincinnati, a franchise world renown as the ideal loser, managed to allow their new weapons to blow up in their face. The comparison of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner to the Bengals and Ravens has never been more apropros than this season.
Like last week and the week before that, if rookies Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins can continue to recharge the defensive line into getting pressure on Flacco, a lot of things could go wrong for the Ravens, but even with the new monsters on the defensive line, facing this offense can prove to be a tough task. Last time these teams played, Flacco was hurried all day and looked awful as a result—so much so that Ravens blogs were actually calling for Mark Bulger—but we are a long ways from that game and both franchises have moved along opposite routes since then. Still, last contest proved what a good pass rush can do and it seems imperative the Bengals follow that up with a similar performance.
Bengals offense vs. Ravens defense
If the Baltimore defense is the Decepticons, then Ray Lewis is Megatron and Ed Reed is Star Scream. Now, for all of you who watched the animated series in the '80's, you remember that when Megatron transformed into a gun, Star Scream would hold him while he fired. The lucky part for the Bengals is that Reed may need to rest this game to get himself ready for the postseason, meaning someone else on that defense would have to hold Ray Lewis once he transforms, and no one can do that quite as well as Reed. Silly cartoon analogies aside, Reed is one of the game's greatest safeties of all time, and if he can't give it a go, Carson Palmer will feel better about himself and about his young bucks.
As for those bucks, there shouldn't be much deviation from the past two week's game plan. If Bob Bratkowski feels the kids are ready to beef up their assignments and workload, then we are likely to see Palmer struggle finding his men running complex option routes. The key is to keep things simple for the lads so they can run the route their supposed to without overthinking themselves or their quarterback.
In the running game, expect Benson to get at least 20 carries for less than four yards a pop and Bernard Scott to get lightly sprinkled into the game plan the way he has since the season plopped into the toilet. If the organization were really smart (stop laughing), they would increase Scott's load to see how life without Benson might actually feel like. With a costly free-agent to be like Benson gobbling up all the carries, and the season officially a waste, this game seems like the ideal time to see how well Scott has progressed when called upon to be the bell-cow back that takes the bulk of the running load.
There is a good chance that Jermaine Gresham will be forced to miss Sunday and that means that rarely-used Chase Coffman will be called upon instead, so keep an eye on the blocking capabilities that Coffman demonstrates against a bruising front seven like Baltimore's. How he can hold up to a bulky defense could spell out a lot in regards to the lighter tight end's future.
It would be nice to see this reinvigorated team bust their ass for their coach one more time before the group is disbanded. All is lost, sure, but, they are still men who should still maintain some fragments of pride. Despite the struggles Marvin Lewis has dealt with in his eight years in Cincinnati, he still managed to elevate the franchise from a laughing stock to a sort of competitive team. If it weren't for him, the players on that roster would be viewed as even more inferior than they are today and in the NFL, that means he has made each man on that team more money. Here in America, we are motivated by money more than damn near anything else, so these players should go out fighting for the man who put a little more food on their tables.
Sadly, however, I don't see a win in the cards this week. Even though they are playing with a new sense of purpose and a surprising amount of focus, the Ravens are playing for something far more tangible than pride or money. This is a legitimate Super Bowl contender who could make their road to such an outcome far easier with a win at home against the Bengals. They are loaded with a host of Pro-Bowl caliber players and are built and coached by individuals who know exactly what it takes to compose such an impressive roster. Like every week, if the Bengals limit turnovers and penalties, they have a shot, but I fear the firepower they face in Baltimore is too much and that they will be humbled once more by a superior force. Then again, they have beaten the Ravens three times in a row and seem, to some degree, to have their number. That number will fall this weekend though, and each team's place in the league will be brutally reinforced. Better luck next year.
Ravens 31, Bengals 19
Mojokong—my beard is not of the playoff variety this go around. It's simply an overgrown chin.