For such a young NFL franchise, the Baltimore Ravens sure know how build football teams and win games. 2015 marks their 20th season of play, and the team has been to the postseason 10 times with two Super Bowl wins in the span. If you thought the dynasty they built in the early 2000s in the era of their first Super Bowl win was something, the nine years spanning 2006-2014 that had another Super Bowl, seven playoff appearances (including five straight) and 90 regular season wins was a beacon of NFL success.
Even though the Ravens have been a model franchise in such a short period of time, relative to other teams, this season has brought a big crash back to the reality so many other franchises face. This collision has come by injury, with 20 players on Injured Reserve, including stars like Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco and Steve Smith. Obviously, this amount of ailments to so many players was a nail in the road for the Ravens' semi-truck as it chugged down the highway.
But, injury can also be little more than an excuse for football failure. The Packers were able to win the Super Bowl in the 2010 season, even though they led the league in players lost for the season, and the Bengals scraped together 10 wins and a tie just last year with a number of gigantic injuries of their own. With a combination of luck and a deep roster, some teams are able to overcome these tough injuries.
Speaking of dynasties, the Cincinnati Bengals are in the middle of the most prominent era of their franchise. They clinched the AFC North last week, marking the fifth straight year they are headed to the postseason and sixth in seven years. Marvin Lewis has tapped his Baltimore roots to create a team so eerily similar to the way the Ravens run their business.
The difference? Why, the postseason, of course. Even when the Ravens seemed to have backed their way into the postseason, like the Super Bowl season of 2012 when they finished the year 1-4, Baltimore knows how to approach the big games. Cincinnati, on the other hand, still hasn't figured out to win in the postseason, even when they appear to be charging ahead.
Questions regarding the future of both franchises are coming to a head this week. Whether or not the Ravens get their sixth win of the season, inquiries are being made as to the talent level at wide receiver and on defense, as well as the age of some of the team's stalwarts. There were even some odd rumors about John Harbaugh's future and if he wants to take on a new project. It seems unlikely because of the incredible amount of success he's had in Baltimore, but questions are obviously lingering with just five wins under their belt this year.
Meanwhile, it's all about the month of January and ability to win big games for the Bengals. After putting forth an admirable effort on Monday Night Football against the Denver Broncos, Cincinnati let a 14-point lead evaporate and took a heartbreaking loss. It's no longer about if the Bengals have enough to get to the postseason anymore--it's about if they can find a way to get that oh-so elusive playoff victory.
After receiving so much help last Sunday afternoon, the Bengals couldn't help themselves by sneaking out a victory at Mile High and sewing up a No. 2 seed. An extra week would give quarterback Andy Dalton more time to heal his fractured thumb and increase the likelihood of the team playing every postseason game with their starting signal-caller. Now the playoff questions are centered around AJ McCarron's ability to lead the team in the postseason, as concern remains for Dalton's thumb. For the time-being, we can sweep some of the familiar prime time issues under the rug.
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McCarron has played relatively well for a second-year player getting thrown into the fire. With a 1-1 record, four touchdowns against two interceptions, and a 95.1 rating, he's given the team opportunities to win the games he has played in. There are the usual miscues young quarterbacks make, including the overtime fumble last week against the Broncos, as well as long dry spells of productivity the offense didn't see under Dalton.
Through it all, McCarron is instilling hope as a viable starter should he need to start in the postseason. Turnovers have been limited (just one in the two games he actually started and prepared for), mental strength in a huge game last week and a better arm than some anticipated has eased the loss of Dalton.
Meanwhile, the Ravens are trying to make due with there fourth starting quarterback of the season. It's the towering Ryan Mallet under center to take over for Joe Flacco (knee), Jimmy Clausen and Matt Schaub, and he is hoping to use the final two weeks of the season as an audition for a starting gig somewhere next year. Last week, Mallett looked like the guy some scouts drooled over when he came out of college five years ago as he picked apart the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's capable of making every NFL throw, it's just a matter of if he's a player to be trusted with the most important position on a football team long-term.
He'll be facing a Bengals defense that is difficult to fully figure out. After being a dominant group in many areas (points allowed, quarterback sacks), they have a tendency to get beat on third down and get gassed late. Recent examples can be found in the losses against the Broncos, Steelers and Cardinals--all part of a 3-4 Bengals record in the second half of the season.
Both teams can get to the passer, but Cincinnati's might have the upper hand here for a variety of reasons. In our player matchups to watch this week, I noted Kelechi Osemele's move to left tackle in relief for Eugene Monroe as an area to keep an eye on. Starting center Jeremy Zuttah was also placed on Injured Reserve earlier this year, so it's a makeshift group up front for the Ravens. Between the injuries and Mallett's immobility, the Bengals should be able to make things uncomfortable for the Baltimore offense.
I've said it before when talking about these Ravens/Bengals matchups and will say it again: expect the unexpected when these two teams meet. When either shoots out to a lead, the other tends to come back in games with wild finishes. Whether it's huge plays from A.J. Green, highlight-reel catches from Marvin Jones or defensive scores by Baltimore, these recent games have been yo-yo-like.
Even without having their starting quarterback for the end of the season and their Pro Bowl tight end for a small handful of games, Cincinnati could tie the franchise record for wins in a season with 12. Some readers have accused me of having some sort of odd negative agenda for the Bengals this year, so I'll be a bit more of a positive fatalist here: the only two times Cincinnati garnered 12 wins in a season paved the way to the team's only two Super Bowl appearances. It's another way of saying this 2015 season started out special and has a chance to end in a similar fashion.
Cincinnati is 4-1 since 2013 against the Ravens, with the only loss coming in overtime. Even with Mallett playing well last week and the Bengals fielding a backup quarterback of their own, the disparity in talent level is obvious between the two teams at this point of the season. Point to injuries if you want an excuse, but you really don't need to.
Ravens 20, Bengals 24
AC -- Full of agendas I enjoy pushing.