Time is running out for the Bengals to get their 2016 season even somewhat back on track. Luckily, this year’s AFC North is a very weak division where the Bengals’ poor record (3-6-1) is still enough to be only a game and a half behind the second place Baltimore Ravens (5-5) and two and a half games behind the division leading Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) following the Steelers’ win on Thanksgiving. The Bengals still have two games remaining against the Ravens and one remaining against the Steelers, while both opponents have difficult schedules through the rest of the season. It’s a long shot at this point, but a win this week would be the first step toward pulling off an improbable comeback.
That said, for this to work out, the Bengals absolutely must win this week in Baltimore. The Ravens are no longer leading the AFC North, so the Bengals continuing their long standing winning streak against them won’t solve the problem by itself. But, if they don’t win, the Bengals’ chances of making a comeback to win the division go from unlikely to absurd. This game is definitely a winnable one for the Bengals, who arguably could be 5-5 right now with more reliable kickerand have had a handful of extremely close calls. But, to pull the win off, they will need to win these key player matchups, especially without A.J. Green on the field.
LDE Carlos Dunlap vs RT Rick Wagner
I discussed this matchup as one of the single most important matchups throughout the second half of the Bengals’ 2016 season a few of weeks back. The reason for that is that Joe Flacco struggles with his accuracy when under pressure, and Carlos Dunlap is fantastic at creating pressure. Now, it seems even more critical for the Ravens that Wagner stays healthy and productive during the game because his backup, Marshall Yanda, is probably going to have to fill in at left guard this week as starter Alex Lewis is in the process of recovering from a devastating high ankle sprain suffered two weeks ago.
Wagner is going to have his hands full going up against Dunlap, whose 5.5 sacks on the season rank 10th in the NFL among 4-3 defensive ends and first among all positions on the Bengals. The Ravens have been about average as far as allowing sacks this season (21 - 19th in the NFL). But, if Dunlap can do his thing this week like he has been known to do this season, it could be a very long afternoon for Flacco.
CB Adam Jones vs WR Steve Smith Sr
The Bengals don’t play a lot of man coverage, so it’s hard to say just how often Adam Jones will be asked to directly cover Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. Smith and Jones both haven’t exactly had Pro Bowl caliber years this season, especially with Mike Wallace playing so well in his debut season with the Ravens (48 catches, 735 yards, four touchdowns). But, they both bring an element to the game that always makes for excitement and interest.
Jones and Smith are both trash talkers who can pose serious problems for the opposing team, as well as their own. Although there have yet to be any major incidents between these two lately.
With Wallace playing so well this season and Dre Kirkpatrick hurting, but expected to play this week, it will be all the more crucial that Jones holds his own when asked to play against Smith. If the Bengals can force the Ravens into a more one-dimensional attack, they can focus their energies on slowing down that single dimension and creating opportunities for themsevles.
Bengals’ secondary vs QB Joe Flacco
It has been a bit of a rough go for the Bengals’ secondary in 2016, but one area that this unit doesn’t have much problem with is interceptions (10 - fifth in the NFL). Unfortunately, the Bengals’ interception machine in the secondary, Dre Kirkpatrick (five), hurt his knee last week. He's still expected to play and hopefully the injury doesn't slow him down. Luckily, the Bengals still have a handful of players who have proven they can intercept when given the opportunity this year in George Iloka (two), Adam Jones (one), Vincent Rey (one), and Josh Shaw (one). Shawn Williams has the one interception not accounted for among that group. But, he's been ruled doubtful to play on Sunday after going down with a hamstring injury last week.
However, even if the Bengals are missing Williams, the defense should still have a reasonable opportunity to force turnovers this week. This season, Flacco has thrown the ninth most interceptions in the NFL (nine). In addition to that level of vulnerability, he has historically been very interception-prone against the Bengals. In fact, he has thrown 19 interceptions in 15 career games against the Bengals, as opposed to only 15 touchdowns.
The last time he went a whole game without throwing an interception to the Bengals was December 30, 2012. He also didn’t throw any touchdowns in that Bengals win. The Ravens have only won one game against the Bengals since that day, and that’s only because the Bengals called an extremely stupid fourth down screen in overtime which set the Ravens up for an easy game-winning field goal. Since then, the Bengals have gone undefeated against the Ravens and it has a lot to do with the fact that Flacco can’t stop turning over the ball. If the Bengals are going to win this week, creating offensive opportunities through turnovers is going to be a key factor.