Every game in the NFL is important.
Whether it's a week two win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, or a week 15 meeting against the same team (on Sunday Night Football), every game factors into the grande scheme of things. Games in December carry no more weight than games in September -- if you win now, then those games don't matter, right? Every game is a must-win -- if for anything our own well-being and not having to deal with people that thrive on telling others to because it's not that big of a deal.
1. The Ravens schedule eases up
Count me as unconvinced that the Houston Texans will be a significant factor in the AFC this year. Houston was down by 28-7 early in the third quarter, before scoring 17 fourth-quarter points to pull out a game-winning 41-yard field goal. Despite Tennessee beating the Steelers in week one, the Texans needed a 21-point second half and overtime to overcome the Titans. The Ravens are 5-1 against the Texans in the all-time series and the last time that Baltimore hosted Houston, Ray Rice gained 161 yards from scrimmage and Joe Flacco passed for over 300 yards. Good for Houston for pulling out those wins, but it's not like they're wiping out teams with postseason itineraries either.
After Houston, the Ravens head to Buffalo and Miami before the Packers and Steelers to conclude October. They could be 6-1 by the bye week and if the Bengals don't keep up, they'll be playing from behind. Obviously I'm speaking in more optimistic tones for the Ravens, due to their noticeable struggles against Cleveland and the blowout loss to the Denver Broncos. Maybe I'm over-thinking their chances, but it's almost certain that Baltimore stands in Cincinnati's way to the AFC North.
2. The Bengals schedule keeps up
With the Green Bay Packers in town this weekend, the Bengals will ship off to Cleveland. And you can disregard that game all you want, but the Browns have always been awful and they've always played Cincinnati tough. Along with actually beating Cincinnati last year by ten points in Cleveland (where the Bengals play in week four), eight of the last 12 meetings have been decided by a possession.
Following Cleveland, the Bengals return home to play a New England Patriots team that Cincinnati has always struggled against. The Patriots have beaten Cincinnati by at least 14 points in their last three meetings ('06, '07, '10) and Cincinnati is 1-7 in their last eight contests.
On paper, the Bengals should win these games. But I've seen enough of the Marvin Lewis era to (slightly) worry about the Browns (despite their team being awful and then trading their best asset on offense). And like my opinion on the Steelers, the Bengals have to prove that they can beat teams like New England, who might be less talent than Cincinnati, but favor with a proven coaching staff.
3. The first true test
If you're sidelined with the thinking that today is too soon to think possible postseason scenarios, then let's help you out with that. Records against common opponents is the sneaky tie-breaker that usually only factors when head-to-head, division and conference records fail to break a tie for postseason discussions. Observing a sport where a team only plays six division games and 12 conference games, winning games against opponents that your postseason competitors are playing, can be critical. In regards to the Green Bay Packers, only the AFC North need apply to the tie-breaker scenario. Cincinnati has already lost to the Bears and, oh look, the Baltimore Ravens play the Packers on Oct. 13.
Starting a season 2-1 isn't unusual for the Bengals. They've won two of their first three games into a regular season in three of the past four seasons. That must be their postseason years, right? Wrong. One of those years was 2010, when the Bengals started 2-1 and then went on a landslide with an epic 10-game losing streak.
I'm still not convinced Chicago is very good -- raise your hand if you thought the Bengals beat the Bengals -- while the Bears also needed a last second touchdown to beat the Minnesota Vikings. We know that the Pittsburgh Steelers are having their issues and are no where near what we're used to with Pittsburgh. Am I downplaying Cincinnati's win on Monday Night Football? No. It was huge. Am I hinting that beating the Green Bay Packers is the Bengals first true test this year? Yes. Yes, I am.
4. The biggest test for the pass defense
The Cincinnati Bengals have generated a decent pass rush this year... at times. But how long did Jay Cutler have in the pocket to dissect Cincinnati's defense by targeting Brandon Marshall? And that was just one receiver. Didn't it seem like Ben Roethlisberger was checking each receiver multiple times before throwing bad passes?
I'd agree that the Bengals have produced a decent pass rush, but it hasn't earned the label as best pass rush in the NFL. Not by a long shot. Right now the Bengals are ranked No. 26 in the NFL with two sacks. Two. Both against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
With Adam Jones, Brandon Ghee, and Dre Kirkpatrick missing practice and the team signing a street free agent cornerback in Curtis Marsh, Cincinnati's secondary will be tested against Aaron Rodgers, who has leads the league with 813 passing yards, seven touchdowns, a 127.2 passer rating and a completion percentage nearly at a 70 percent clip.
We can't expect Cincinnati's secondary to shut down Green Bay's receivers or to make life for Rodgers difficult. If there was a game for the team's vaunted pass rush to make their season introduction, this is it. When Rodgers is under pressure, his passer rating plummets to 54.9 and even blitzing has been effective with a rating of 84.3. Yet, defenses insist on sitting back against the quarterback. When there's no pressure, Rodgers' passer rating explodes to 145.4. That can't happen this weekend because Cincinnati will not win a track-meet.