2016 hasn’t exactly been a year to remember for the Cincinnati Bengals or Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals, after putting together a franchise best record of 12-4 just last year, regressed significantly to only five wins so far in 2016. A loss to the Ravens in Week 12 essentially killed any realistic hope for them to make a playoff push, and a Week 15 loss to the Steelers made it mathematically official that they would not return to the postseason. The Ravens are sitting at 8-7 entering their final game, which is a massive improvement from their 5-11 record in 2015. But, a loss to the Steelers last week eliminated them from the playoffs as well.
Therefore, this week’s game between the Bengals and Ravens is essentially meaningless. Both teams are out of the playoffs and are virtually locked into their general positioning, five or take a few spots, in the 2017 draft. But it still won’t make much of a difference in terms of the caliber of player they will be looking at in the spring.
Still, this week’s game means a lot to the pride of the players and, in some cases, whether or not they even return to the team next year. Therefore, you won’t want to miss these key matchups:
LDE Margus Hunt vs RT Rick Wagner
Margus Hunt is coming up on the end of his rookie contract, a deal that largely went to waste in his first three seasons in the league (seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, one pass deflection). But, in 2016, he has flashed the ability to produce at the NFL level. He hasn’t been particularly consistent, disappearing for periods, despite playing well during other times. But, his production at the beginning of the year and sporadically throughout the rest of the year might be enough for the Bengals to extend his contract at the end of the year.
However, there is a good chance his return in 2017 will hinge on his performance this week against the Ravens. He has been so sporadically productive in 2016 that the Bengals’ desire to bring him back could simply be based on how he performed in his most recent outings. The Bengals’ front office and coaching staff is smarter than literally being that reactionary, but it is true that finishing on a good or bad note will stick in people’s minds no matter how much film analysis they do otherwise.
Hunt gets moved around a lot, but his primary position is at the left defensive end spot, where Carlos Dunlap absolutely manhandled Rick Wagner back in Week 12 (3 tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 2 pass deflections, 1 QB hit). It’s hard to say whether or not Hunt’s production will make a huge difference in the outcome of the game, but it will definitely be one of the more interesting things to watch for this week.
WR Tyler Boyd vs Ravens cornerbacks
The Bengals’ leading receiver in Week 12 was Tyler Eifert. But, Eifert will not be playing this week after being placed on Injured Reserve and undergoing back surgery. So the Bengals will be looking to the next most productive receiver from that game, Tyler Boyd, to lead the passing game. This is especially true with A.J. Green ruled out. Boyd has been every bit as productive as you would expect out of a second round rookie, so he will be hoping to see a performance similar to his 5 catches for 62 yards from five weeks ago to reinforce an impressive rookie season. A touchdown would also be nice as Boyd only has one this season.
A strong performance from Boyd this week will also help the Bengals build momentum going forward, which is about the only tangible benefit left for the team to play for. Having a talented receiver like Boyd enjoying a confidence boost heading into 2017 will be great for a Bengals receiving corps that seems talented enough, but severely lacks chemistry. Boyd playing well against the Ravens again should help improve that chemistry.
RB Rex Burkhead vs Ravens’ No. 2 run defense
With Jeremy Hill questionable to play this week (and reportedly not expected to play), Rex Burkhead will have a prime chance to test his skill set against one of the NFL’s best run defenses. The Ravens have allowed only 1,277 yards rushing this season, which ranks No. 2 in the NFL behind only the Dallas Cowboys (1,222).
If you’ll recall, the Bengals’ running game wasn’t particularly good in Week 12. Hill attempted the majority of the rushes (12), but only gained 21 yards in the process. However, Burkhead touched the ball five times in the running game and was much more productive. He didn’t even receive half the number of touches that Hill did, but he gained eight more yards for an astounding yards per run average (5.8). He also contributed two pass receptions for 19 yards, one of which went for 17.
With Hill’s struggles over the last two years, it would seem that a talented and productive back like Burkhead could easily prove his worth enough to overtake the Bengals’ struggling starter on the depth chart. If that were to happen, Giovani Bernard would likely take over the starting duties and Burkhead would leapfrog Hill for the complementary role. But, a lot of that potential hinges on the film that he puts up at the end of the season. And, on top of that, Burkhead becomes a free agent in March, and the Bengals need to get him back next season in order for any of this to matter.
Burkhead’s game on Sunday will also determine how much the Bengals are willing to pay to extend his contract, if at all. With the Bengals out of the playoffs, this game against the Ravens will be Burkhead’s last chance of the year to ‘wow’ both the Bengals and every other NFL team looking for a running back this offseason.