The Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens are heading into dangerous territory right now. Cincinnati is 6-3 despite coming off a loss to the Miami Dolphins (a loss much more damaging than the box score may suggest). The Ravens are limping back to Baltimore after a 24-18 loss to the Cleveland Browns, knocking Baltimore to third place largely due to the fact that the Ravens have lost four of their last five games.
Both teams are on a collision course to correct some serious issues. Baltimore has no running game to speak of and Joe Flacco hasn't been the quarterback that's matched his rewarding contract after winning the Super Bowl last year. The Bengals have lost Geno Atkins for the year, compounding a sour taste in their collective mouths after losing a game in Miami on a quarterback sack that directly resulted in Cincinnati's loss.
If Baltimore wants to get back in to the AFC North race, they're facing a must-win this Sunday while the Bengals are looking to strengthen their suddenly weakened grip in the division. Cincinnati had a chance to step on the division's throat, to take a three-game lead over the now-second place Cleveland Browns. Instead the gap is closing after this weekend and the superiority that the Bengals once had is in trouble.
When Leon Hall went down with an Achilles against the Detroit Lions, you figured that they could deal with it. Would Cincinnati's passing defense be worse without Leon Hall? Yes. Would it be a disaster? No. Then Taylor Mays created confusion after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against the New York Jets. Who would replace Mays, who played a specialized position of a safety playing coverage linebacker; something that he adapted to.
If you eventually lose enough starters, you'll start seeing it affect the team.
How can Cincinnati respond to this?
Brandon Thompson figures to replace Atkins against the Baltimore Ravens -- as of this posting. He's not Atkins, but shows enough promise to be an effective run stopper. Cincinnati will host free agents this week, though we doubt to find a stater-level player -- considering that free agents are free agents right now for a reason, we're not looking for a significant signing of a named player -- but to help rebuild a depth chart decimated by injuries.
Despite having no idea what condition he is in nor the motivation that he has (is he just wanting a paycheck or a championship), and the reported $5 million price tag that he's asking for working only half-a-season, Richard Seymour is the name being thrown around the most.
What could result in the greater question: How will the Bengals respond to losing an overtime game on a quarterback sack? Will Kevin Zeitler's confidence be sapped after allowing Cameron Wake's inside rush? Or does he find motivation in that? Will Andy Dalton lose confidence in his otherwise steady offensive line?
Losing Atkins significantly hurts the defense, forcing the offense to carry the torch in the second half. Will they? Can they? Or did Wake's sack in overtime rattle the offense more than we know? At the very least, they have to clean up their game, stop the turnovers that's led to losses in Miami, Chicago and stop looking past teams like Cleveland.
These are the questions entering Baltimore that will be answered, one way or another. We've highlighted all season how the Bengals have survived adversity this year. Now they're facing their best test of the season heading into their final four division games over the next eight weeks.