Team: Baltimore Ravens
John Harbaugh is entering his eighth year as head coach in Baltimore. The former Eagles special-teams coordinator was hired by the Ravens in January 2008. He's been with them ever since while compiling an overall record of 72-40 in the regular season and 10-5 in the postseason, including a win in Super Bowl XLVII.
Recapping Last Season:
The Ravens endured a roller-coaster year that began last February when star running back Ray Rice was arrested for assaulting his then-fiancee. He wasn't the first to be in trouble with the law, though, as five Ravens players were arrested throughout the offseason.
Despite all of the issues Baltimore faced, the team rebounded to go 10-6 and make the playoffs. After losing to the Bengals in Week 1, Baltimore went on to win five of their next six games before losing three of their next five. Baltimore ended the year having won three of their final four games to squeak into the playoffs.
From there, Baltimore defeated the AFC North champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the Wild Card round. The Ravens then went on to lose a heart-breaking 35-31 divisional-round game against the top-seeded New England Patriots to end their season.
Though their season ended on a sour note, Baltimore exceeded expectations while showcasing a bright future.
History with Cincinnati:
Current Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis came to Cincinnati after being a record-setting NFL defensive coordinator in Baltimore. His six seasons (1996-2001) as Ravens DC included a Super Bowl victory in 2000 when his defense set the NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game campaign (165). That team beat the previous record by 22 points, and that unit will always be in the discussions regarding the best NFL defenses of all time.
Another current Bengals coach with Baltimore ties is defensive backs coach Mark Carrier, who is in his 10th year as an NFL position coach. He spent two seasons (2010-11) as defensive line coach for the N.Y. Jets and was defensive backs coach for the Baltimore Ravens from 2006-09.
As for the actual series, the Ravens lead the regular-season series 20-18. Since their first meeting in 1996 (24-21 Bengals win), the two franchises have never met in the playoffs. However, the two have combined for 11 playoff berths since 2008.
Since Lewis became the head coach, the Bengals are 14-10 against the Ravens, including a three-game winning streak entering the 2015 season.
2015 Season Outlook:
The Ravens endured another rough offseason by losing several key starters from last year's team. The biggest of which was All-Pro defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, who was traded to the Detroit Lions for draft picks back in March.
Torrey Smith left to sign with San Francisco after becoming one of the great receivers Baltimore has ever had. In four seasons, Smith has caught 213 passes for 3,591 yards (16.9 YPC) and a franchise-record 30 touchdowns.
Owen Daniels left to sign with the Denver Broncos after becoming Baltimore's starting tight end in 2014 after Dennis Pitta went down with a season-ending hip injury. Speaking of, Pitta is set to open the 2015 season on the PUP list while recovering from his second major hip injury in three years.
Though those losses will be hard to overcome, Baltimore is still talented enough to win double-digit games and contend for a playoff spot. They return one of the best offensive lines in football, led by All-Pro guard Marshall Yanda.
Oh, and that Joe Flacco fellow is no slouch himself. 2014 saw Flacco have the best regular season of his career, setting career highs in passing yards (3,986), passing touchdowns (27), and fewest times sacked (19). He also attempted and completed the second most passes in his career (344 completions out of 554 attempts) and tied his career mark for the second lowest amount of interceptions thrown in a regular season (12).
Also back in the fold is Pro Bowl running back Justin Forsett. He finished fifth in rushing yards with 1,266 yards to go with eight scores. With he and Flacco back playing behind a stout line, the offense will be fine in 2015, but the defense will once again be what carries the team.
While Ngata's loss is tough, trading him was a clear sign Timmy Jernigan was in for a bigger role in Baltimore's defense in 2015. Jernigan showed flashes last year as a pass-rusher, primarily from the defensive tackle spot where he'll likely start at this year. He did so well that Grantland tabbed him as one of their notable pass-rushers to watch for this coming year.
Also back is Pro Bowl corner Jimmy Smith, who missed the second half of last year due to a foot injury. The real strength of the defense will be in its linebackers. On the outside, Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs combined for 29.5 sacks last year and will once again be among the best pass-rushing tandems in 2015.
Daryl Smith and CJ Mosley are arguably the best inside-linebacker duo in any 3-4 defense. Those two helped lead Baltimore to the No. 4 run defense ranking in 2014.
In all, the Ravens are poised to win double-digit games and contend for a playoff berth once again in 2015.
Cincinnati Game Date:
Week 3: Sunday, September 27, 1:00 p.m. EST and Week 17: January 3, 1:00 p.m. EST
Week 3: M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland; Week 17: Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati
Odds of a Bengal Victory:
Very Early Outlook:
This is actually a team I'm very confident the Bengals are better than. The problem is the first time the two teams will meet is for a Week 3 game is in Baltimore with the Ravens having lost three straight in this series. It's also the Ravens home opener and it's really hard for me to see Baltimore losing four straight games to any opponent, let alone a division rival.
There's also a good chance Cincinnati enters this game 2-0 with games at Oakland and home vs. San Diego to open the year. Meanwhile, Baltimore opens at Denver and at Oakland before having their 2015 home opener vs. Cincinnati. I believe the Ravens come into this game 1-1 and with an added edge that the Bengals are unable to match and lose a close one, 23-20.