With both the Bengals and the Ravens out of the playoffs and only pride on the line, it is hard to guess who will play or have a big role in their game on Sunday. Both teams placed important contributors on Injured Reserve in recent days, and even if the coaches still want to win, some of the young guys could be auditioning for future roles in this game.
We already know that Cincinnati will have to play reserves at multiple positions, including wide receiver, offensive line and linebacker, but Baltimore will be without their top cornerback, Jimmy Smith, and another defensive stud in inside linebacker Zachary Orr.
I don’t think either team will try to lose to improve their pecking order in next season’s draft, but they also won’t care as much as they do in other weeks and should give snaps to some of the players with lesser roles, like Cody Core and Nick Vigil for the Bengals.
Whatever Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh might do is impossible to know before the game starts, but my best guess is that these five Baltimore players should be key in the outcome of the game. This is not, however, a list of their five best players.
Steve Smith Sr., wide receiver:
One of the best at his position in the NFL for the last 15 years will likely retire after tomorrow’s game, and he’ll want to go out with a bang. He is not the same player he once was, but he’s reliable and one of the toughest guys around. The Bengals shut him down in their Week 12 matchup, but in 2015 the former Panthers star had one of the best games of his career against Cincinnati.
The Ravens want to run the football, and without Vontaze Burfict on the field, that will be easier, but the Ravens still throw the ball a lot and Smith is their go-to guy.
Tavon Young, cornerback:
The rookie has played extremely well and is looking like a nice building piece for the Ravens. At only 5-foot-9 many thought he’d have to stick inside to have success in the league, but the former Temple Owl has been very impressive, with eight passes defended and two picks so far on the season.
Andy Dalton might not have much time to target him on Sunday, but if he does, expect Young to be tough to beat. He doesn’t have elite size or speed, but right now, the Bengals don’t have that either on offense, either.
Terrell Suggs, pass rusher:
Speaking of the Bengals offense, their line is often in trouble when facing one of most prolific pass rushers in the history of the game. Suggs is a veteran and will not last much longer in the league, but he’s still pretty good and some of his best performances come against Cincinnati.
Suggs has played through significant injuries for much of the year and might require offseason surgery. He tore his biceps when sacking Giants quarterback Eli Manning on Oct. 16. He missed one game, but has played in the last eight. One of those was their Week 12 clash with the Bengals, and Suggs was clutch late in the fourth quarter with the Bengals rallying. He had two sacks, one pass defended and two forced fumbles. He’s probably Dalton’s worst enemy heading into the game.
Patrick Onwuasor, inside linebacker:
With Orr out with an injury, the next man up is the undrafted rookie free agent out of Portland State who opened eyes with big hits in preseason. The former safety will attempt to ensure the Ravens don’t miss a beat without Orr, who leads the team in tackles and is also second in interceptions with three.
Onwuasor is playing for his future role with the team next season, so expect him to be aggressive.
Justin Tucker, kicker:
One of the best legs in the NFL, Tucker was automatic from 50+ the last time these teams played. We saw how he, almost singlehandedly, beat the Bengals a month ago, and this could be again the case on Sunday.
Tucker is so reliable, he gives his offense a lot of comfort knowing that any time they reach the opposing 35-yard line, they are scoring one way or another, and that has a lot of value.