In the NFL, there are a handful of franchises that are pillars of consistency and success. Since the Baltimore Ravens became an NFL franchise in 1996, they have been widely-regarded as one of the most well-run teams in the league. The Cincinnati Bengals are slowly creeping into the same conversation.
The obvious difference between the clubs is their respective postseason successes and failures. The Ravens can look so pedestrian during the regular season, yet they get hot as the temperature cools and then become a team nobody wants to play when the calendar rolls into January. While they have gone to four straight playoffs and five in the past six seasons, the unfortunate truth is that the Bengals are the team others want to play in those single-elimination contests.
As they did last year, Cincinnati has shot off to an impressive 2-0 start in 2015. Armed with a strong running game, torrid defensive line play and heady work done by their quarterback, many believe they are one of the most complete teams in the league. They seem both confident and hungry, which is the mix of a championship-calliber club.
The Ravens, on the other hand, seem very un-Baltimore-like at the moment. Some would call their close Week 1 loss in Denver a great defensive battle, while some would label it as downright ugly--nevertheless, they left Colorado with an L. The very next week, the Ravens headed to Oakland after the Raiders took a beating by the Bengals. What ensued was an unlikely shoot-out with the Silver and Black emerging victorious. That's the summary of their 0-2 start, folks.
Under John Harbaugh's watch (since 2008), the Ravens have never started 0-2, and in the history of the franchise, the Ravens have never gone 0-3, creating a big early-season test for the Bengals. While Cincinnati has largely dominated the Cleveland Browns and have been dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout Marvin Lewis' tenure, it's the bi-annual clash with Baltimore that has been a quite even matchup.
Some of the numbers are interesting: Joe Flacco's 7-7 record against the Bengals with a sub-70 passer rating overall are a couple. The other interesting facet is the unfortunate trauma of dealing with injury. The Ravens are without Terrell Suggs, while the Bengals will be without Pat Sims, a key rotational player on the line, which was part of Cincinnati's reconstruction project this offseason. Both vacancies will be felt by the respective clubs.
A concern for the Ravens and Flacco is the attrition of offensive talent around him. Dennis Pitta and Torrey Smith are gone, and exciting rookie wideout Brashad Perriman is nursing a lingering knee issue and hasn't seen the field yet this season. The ageless wonder, Steve Smith, had another big day against the Raiders with a 150-yard effort, but it wasn't enough to get them in the win column last Sunday.
As he has done for so much of his career, Flacco is using a crop of running backs and other tight ends to contribute. Lorenzo Taliafero can be a headache for defenses, as is the multi-dimensional Justin Forsett, but a nice surprise for the Ravens has been second-year man Crockett Gilmore. He already has two touchdown catches on the season and is a matchup nightmare at 6'6" and 270 pounds.
One fascinating thing to look out for with the Bengals is what they will do at running back. Jeremy Hill is in the doghouse with his two fumbles last week and isn't wowing folks as he did toward they end of 2015, as evidenced by his current 3.5 yards-per-carry average. Giovani Bernard has been running like a man possessed, but hasn't hit pay dirt in the first two games of the season. Who will get more touches in Baltimore and which of the two (if either) will catch fire?
This Week 3 game, however, is more about the intangible aspects than roster talent. It seems as if Baltimore is in a state of desperation after two conference losses and facing an undefeated divisional foe. Some of the best football the Ravens have played in their brief history was when their backs are up against the wall and that's the sentiment this week.
Meanwhile, the Bengals are simply applying the "one week at a time" mantra, while not getting too high or low on the result. Last year, the Bengals stunned the Ravens by sweeping the two games--something they haven't done since 2009 with a quarterback named Carson Palmer. They would obviously love to do it again, but with pundits feeling like Baltimore's season is on the respirator, it will undoubtedly be more difficult to do so in 2015.
If the past couple of years in this head-to-head are any indication, expect the unexpected. Whether it's improbable catches by A.J. Green, weird penalties, and/or down-to-the-wire nail biters, these games can get crazy, regardless of win-loss records.
While those weird bounces went Cincinnati's way last year, I'm not so sure it continues this year--at least not in both games. I hate to submit to stereotypes, but Baltimore has dug themselves out of holes before and it's a team that knows how to get it done. This might be the case Sunday as they get in front of their home crowd to chants of "Seven Nation Army".
Bengals 27, Ravens 31
AC -- Awaiting the torches and pitchforks.