The Ravens put on an impressive display on Monday night, to say the least. The beat the Bengals soundly and there's no denying that--hats off to them. However, I feel that Baltimore had a bit more on their side than usual on Monday night, both in the game and outside of the game and that helped to contribute to their lopsided win.
Let's review the five things that I'm pointing at.
I see three aspects that helped the Ravens out on Monday that were largely out of the Bengals' control. Their coaching staff and players couldn't really contain these things from happening for the most part.
Art Modell's death: In a sad turn of events, the Ravens' owner died just days before the 2012 home opener at M & T Bank Stadium. In the moments before kickoff, video montages of Modell's life and career achievements in Baltimore. Ravens players were visibly emotional at this team memorial and they took a "win one for Art" type of attitude. This Monday night game took on a new meaning for Baltimore and it showed. Modell and his team had one more laugh at the Brown family's expense on Monday. Again we at Cincy Jungle send condolences to the Modell family.
Lucky bounces of the football: On three or four separate occasions on Monday, Bengals defenders had their hands on a Joe Flacco pass that would have resulted in a turnover. Not catching these potential interceptions not only was a failure to capture game momentum, but then resulted in extra plays for the Ravens offense which led to extended drives and points. On the other hand, one of the few misfires by Andy Dalton careened towards Ravens safety Ed Reed and he made a one-handed interception and returned it for a touchdown, all but sealing the victory. Though Dalton missed on a handful of other passes, it was really the only opportunity he gave the Ravens defense to create a turnover and they capitalized. The Bengals did not--thrice. As the adage goes, "good teams get lucky bounces of the ball sometimes". That was definitely true on Monday, and though making these interceptions could be deemed as inside of the Bengals' control, the ball bouncing a particular way or a referee call isn't.
Poor calls by replacement referees: We all had hoped that the replacement officials wouldn't be mentioned in the outcome of the game and we hate to use the refs as an excuse for a loss, but we have to point out a few blunders here. The biggest gaffe was the big touchdown "reception" by Anquan Boldin, putting the Ravens up 17-3 at the time. As Boldin came down with the football, he was sandwiched by two Bengals defenders and the ball was jarred slightly loose as he skid and bounced across the end zone. The officials reviewed the play and still deemed it a touchdown. A man who officiated NFL games for a quarter of a century, Gerry Austin, was in the booth with Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden and said that it was not a catch in his estimation. Ouch.
There was also a close to 20-yard catch by A.J. Green that the officials wrongly deemed a drop. Upon reviewing the replay, Green had indeed made the catch and it would have put the Bengals deep in Ravens territory. Now, head coach Marvin Lewis should have challenged the play and didn't which was a bad move, but the call should have been correct in the first place. The team overcame it and still managed a field goal out of the drive, but who knows if they could have gotten seven instead of three? There was also a bad pass interference call on Leon Hall in the third quarter just when the game appeared to be spiraling out of control. He looked as if he had textbook coverage and the officials disagreed. All three of these instances hurt the Bengals on Monday night.
On the flip side, there were a couple of aspects that the Bengals could have controlled and failed to do so. In short, the Ravens outclassed them in these two areas.
Intensity/tenacity: The Ravens were revved up. A visibly slimmer Ray Lewis was making plays, as were a number of different Ravens. They fed off of their noisy crowd and showed that they were hungry to avenge last year's loss in the AFC Championship game. Perhaps the most noticeable Raven who was jazzed up was safety Bernard Pollard. After talking a bit of noise this week towards A.J. Green, Pollard continuously looked for the big hit across the middle and made a number of plays at the line of scrimmage. The Bengals returned this intensity with an alligator-armed attempt at a touchdown reception by Jermaine Gresham and their defensive front consistently getting pushed off of the line. Really, the first offensive possessions for each team said it all. The Ravens first play from scrimmage was a bomb to Torrey Smith, while the Bengals countered with a short yard pass in the flat and a run up the gut.
I really only saw only two "response" plays by the Bengals: one was on a third down run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis where he specifically sought out Ray Lewis and lowered his head into him while getting the first down. It was an impressive, albeit overlooked, sight in the game from a guy who came over from a winning organization. The other was on the big hit from Taylor Mays to Jacoby Jones in the middle of the field on a second and seven. Unfortunately, that was just a dumb move by Mays, and it gave the Ravens a fresh set of downs because of a penalty. It's hard to say what's more responsible for this lack of intensity--poor preparation from the coaches, or just a lack of focus from the players. More than likely, it was both.
Ravens no-huddle offensive scheme/Bengals' inability to substitute personnel on defense: This is where I think that the game was truly won and lost. Much was made about the Ravens new no-huddle offense by the media, but one had to see it to believe it. It was definitely effective and the Ravens were gutsy with their play calls, rendering the Bengals defense tired and understaffed for the formations that the Ravens were throwing out on the field.
What was lost in that is the fact that Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer likes to rotate players in and out to keep guys fresh and maximize the packages he puts out there. Limited opportunities presented themselves to the Bengals' staff to get the guys that they wanted on the field exactly when they wanted because of the quick pace of the Ravens' no-huddle offense. On numerous occasions, we saw cornerbacks lined up against much taller tight ends, players whose strengths are not in pass coverage (Manny Lawson and Rey Maualuga) but yet were frequently in zone coverages, and players like Geno Atkins were lining up at defensive end. At one point in the game, my brother turned to me and said "Wow, (Devon) Still is getting a lot of time tonight". It later dawned on me that that may not have been entirely by choice from Zimmer et al, but rather that he was stuck out there because of time issues, and/or fatigue to others from not getting much of a break. Credit the Ravens too, as they had the Cincinnati defense on their heels most of the night.
At this point, it's difficult to say how much stock should be put into this game. Unfortunately, the team hasn't traditionally done well in season openers under Marvin Lewis and with some of the above-mentioned extenuating circumstances surrounding Monday's game, some might write this loss off. After all the Bengals were only down 17-13 midway through the third quarter. Still, the lack of intensity from the Bengals and the utter dominance from the Ravens at times has to be troubling.