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Ravens at Bengals: Mercy killing

The Bengals host the Ravens in the 2016 season finale as both teams are looking for how to improve their teams next season. Will Cincinnati’s youngsters step up in a big way to give the Bengals hope for 2017?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

In their renaissance since 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals have played a couple important games against in season finales against the Baltimore Ravens. A big divisional matchup in Week 17 has been a staple of the NFL’s schedule-making process, and these two teams matching up on Sunday have had three big games over the past five years.

Unfortunately for fan bases of both teams, neither the Bengals nor the Ravens have much to play for at the moment. With Baltimore and Cincinnati both oddly out of the playoff race, the teams will be playing a number of young players to find out what their future looks like on Sunday.

So many negative storylines surround both clubs right now. Fewer surround John Harbaugh’s club, who have actually made a nice comeback after an injury-riddled 2015 season, but they will look to improve once again this coming offseason. Harbaugh’s counterpart on Cincinnati’s sideline, Marvin Lewis, has more questions about his future currently swirling about.

Either way, this game on New Year’s Day is all about long-term plans.

For the Ravens, Joe Flacco will be in his 10th year next season, if you can believe it, while his quasi-top receiver, Steve Smith, is sniffing retirement. They’ve put things together at a number of positions with duct tape and bubble gum this year, but the industry-standard stout Baltimore defense remains this year. With the No. 5 overall-ranked unit and their second-overall ranking against the run, it’s what has propelled them an 8-7 record and likely what they will be hanging their hat on in the years to come.

Meanwhile, after constantly hovering at the top of the AFC North since 2009, the Bengals have a ton of questions as another potential offseason of change looms. Aside from both of these teams being out of the playoff race at this point of the season, the crazy amount of stars they have had to shelf with injuries has left the season finale with minimal star power.

Out for the Bengals are A.J. Green (with some drama), Tyler Eifert, Clint Boling, Cedric Ogbuehi, while the outlooks for Jeremy Hill and Vontaze Burfict look bleak. So, if you remember the 2010 Bengals team who had similar expectations, this squad has many resemblances six years later. Young Bengals players have now taken late-season roles for injured starters, paving the way for others to make solid impressions.

With both teams having an eye on the future, this game might have the sense of a chess match between two old friends. Substitutions and rotations will be key for both teams—but, mostly for the Bengals. Recently, Cincinnati has had the Ravens’ number, but that has been with the Bengals having great health and a few lucky bounces—mostly when Green was healthy.

And, if you’re keeping track in 2016, those bounces have absolutely not gone the Bengals’ way. Whether it has been kickers missing kicks, the offense sputtering under a new coordinator, injuries to some of their best players or disappointments on defense, the 5-9-1 record has surprised some, but has been expected by the long-time cynics. Some expected the current record, while others were more optimistic, but the fact remains that a number of issues hitting the team last spring have led to a massively underachieving season.

Usually, these previews come down to a number of statistical breakdowns, unit rankings and other keys to a team victory. But, with both teams playing with an eye on the future, while employing many new faces because of late-season injuries, it’s difficult to point to specific aspects as the route to a win.

Instead, Week 17 will be a true test of the depth of both teams. Since 2012, the Bengals have utilized a combination of both need and best player available to build a perennial playoff squad. With so many injuries to their stars, the supposed depth of Cincinnati’s roster will be tested this Sunday and most might find out if the spring hype is accurate.

Unfortunately, I just don’t see the Bengals overcoming the loss of so many star players. Given the ridiculous amount of crazy games with close results between these two teams, this season finale might be another odd chapter in this storied rivalry.

Ravens 19, Bengals 13

AC— Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals—and a Happy New Year.