Coming off of a disappointing loss to the Denver Broncos last week on Monday Night Football, the Bengals turn their attention to the final week of the regular season. The Bengals clinched a playoff berth in Week 15 as they took down the San Francisco 49ers and claimed the division title last week as the Baltimore Ravens upset the Pittsburgh Steelers. They had the opportunity to clinch a first round bye last week as well, but failed to do so in a disappointing outing on Monday Night Football. At this point, there is a slight, though unlikely chance that the Bengals could still snipe the No. 2 seed away from the Broncos.
The logical way to approach the game this week would be to rest all of the vulnerable starters and to take a bit more of a conservative approach to this game. That's because there isn't really a whole lot left to gain for the Bengals, aside from a first round playoff bye that would require the 4-11 San Diego Chargers to pull off the unthinkable and take down the Broncos on their own turf. Even in that scenario, the Bengals could lose to the Ravens and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the new AFC West champion, the Kansas City Chiefs (provided the Chiefs beat the Raiders). Still, the Bengals are taking this game from the perspective of building momentum. AJ McCarron already explained why they still care about winning, but from the perspective of a fan this is about as close to an expendable game as it gets in the regular season.
Last week: 20-17 loss vs Denver Broncos.
It was a disappointing loss for the Bengals in Denver last week, but it wasn't all bad. They jumped out to a 14-0 lead behind their backup quarterback, but he played decidedly average after that and ended up letting the lead slip. The thing was, both backup quarterbacks showed promise in the game, generally playing better than a backup would be expected to play.
The Bengals' loss was a huge blow to their confidence and credibility, but it didn't change much in terms of what Pro Football Focus thought about them. Despite the loss, they remained at No. 4 in PFF's weekly power rankings (above the Broncos). The way that the Bengals lost and the Broncos won, it simultaneously answered a lot of questions and raised a lot more about who will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this year.
Last week: 20-17 win vs Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Ravens haven't exactly played up to the standard they've held themselves to lately. Not since 2007 have the Ravens finished a season with a 5-11 record, which will be their final record barring a massive upset over the Bengals in Cincinnati. You'd have to go all the way back to their inaugural season in 1996 to find a season with a worse finishing record (4-12). Plenty of Ravens fans will tell you that it was a successful season because they swept the Steelers, but gruesome injuries to Joe Flacco, Justin Forsett, and Terrell Suggs have created a situation in which the season, to a large extent, has been hard to watch for their fans.
Part of the problem this year has been pass coverage. Jimmy Smith, in particular, has allowed a quarterback rating of 93.2. Out of 119 qualifying cornerbacks, that ranks 29th lowest in the NFL and has resulted in a poor pass coverage grade from PFF (-5.0). It hasn't been all bad though. Losing Steve Smith Sr. for the season hurt, but Kamar Aiken has graded positively in his last eight games (+11.9). That's good for the 18th highest grade among qualifying WRs over that period.
It also helps that the Ravens have Justin Tucker, who has graded higher than any other kicker in the NFL this season (+34.4). He's giving his team the best chance to win, only allowing 11.4 percent of his kickoffs to be returned, the lowest of all NFL kickers.
Keys to the Game
Establish the Run
This is a point that analysts have been harping on with the Bengals all season, but it is seeming more and more prominent while Andy Dalton is hurt and AJ McCarron is under center. Jeremy Hill hasn't been having the best season between the goal lines, but he had a pretty good game against the Broncos last week. His positive grade (+2.2) came as a result of gaining most of his yards after contact and on display was a much more potent Bengals team than we've seen since Dalton went out against the Steelers.
If the Bengals can resurrect the effectiveness of the tandem of Giovani Bernard, who eats up most of the field, and Jeremy Hill, who punches the ball into the endzone, then it will be easily for McCarron to work in the paced offense and play more like he did in the first quarter of the Denver game.
Stop the Run
It's no secret that the Ravens beating the Steelers last week was one of the biggest and most surprising upsets of the season, especially with the Steelers fighting for their playoff life. The Ravens have been having a really bad season so far, but based on the way the game with the Steelers went, the running game was key to beating the Steelers. Javorius Allen and Terrence West combined for 121 yards and a touchdown, which is the best rushing performance the Ravens have put on since Week 12 against the Browns, that's also the last time they won a game. When the Ravens can run the ball, they have a better chance of winning. In fact, they have only won one game this season in which they gained less than 95 yards on the ground.
It shouldn't be too hard to stop the Ravens' running game. Allen has graded third lowest among qualifying running backs in the running game (-3.9), despite one of the best grades at his position in the passing game (+5.7). Not to mention, their offensive line hasn't exactly been blocking well for the runner. Ricky Wagner, in particular, has posted one of the worst overall grades of all offensive tackles this season (-23.2). Also, the return of Vontaze Burfict has been a boon for the Bengals' running defense, posting the highest run stopping percentage at his position (17.2).
Despite some issues in recent weeks with locking down the passing game in the second half, the Bengals' secondary has ranked as the sixth best in the NFL so far. Compared to most cornerbacks, Dre Kirkpatrick hasn't been good this season, with 115 other cornerbacks with at least 275 snaps ranking higher this season. But, that poor performance has been balanced out by Reggie Nelson (+85.8), Adam Jones(+84.6), Leon Hall (+82.9), and George Iloka (+84.).
The Bengals join the New England Patriots as the only two secondary units with at least four players earning overall grades of 80 or higher. With the Ravens currently on their fourth quarterback of the season, it's hard to imagine the Bengals' secondary letting much get by them. If they can keep up their impressive play, it's hard to imagine the Ravens having much of a chance.