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NFL Week 17 Bengals at Ravens game preview: Not-so-grand finale

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The Bengals are not only facing the end of the 2017 on Sunday, but also a potential end of an era.

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It’s odd how certain things in life can come full-circle.

Current Cincinnati Bengals head coach, Marvin Lewis, might be taking the field while holding that specific job for the last time this coming Sunday. It’s going to be a familiar feeling for Lewis, for a number of reasons.

Aside from finishing up his 15th season as the Bengals’ head coach and eight where they will be at home in January, he faces a Ravens team they’ve ended the season with in six of the past seven years.

Oh, yeah: He’s also facing his former employer in which he helped earn one of the biggest victories in the Baltimore Ravens’ short NFL history.

Super Bowl XXXV was a crowning achievement for the upstart franchise that moved from Cleveland after 1995, with Lewis heading up a historical NFL defense in 2000. It’s in his success within the old AFC Central, especially against his own team, that prompted Mike Brown to hire one of the hottest head coaching names in the 2003 offseason.

After a deplorable 12-year run from 1991-2002, Lewis and his shiny Super Bowl ring were a breath of fresh air in The Queen City. Lewis’ inaugural season started off in a fashion akin to the preceding years, but the new head coach quickly brought the Bengals back to respectability.

Said respectability culminated in 2005 with the Bengals winning their first division title since Sam Wyche’s 1990 squad. With that 11-5 campaign, it appeared that Lewis and the Bengals were on the precipice of a dynasty.

That never materialized, but it appeared that the former Ravens assistant had some more magic up his sleeve going into the 2011 season. Cincinnati was selected to be one of the worst-faring teams that year, but Lewis and an upstart team led the Bengals to a surprising postseason campaign that was the beginning of five straight postseason appearances.

After two disappointing seasons in 2016-2017, Lewis hasn’t had his contract renewed for 2018. Now, Cincinnati is facing its first major coaching overhaul since the George W. Bush administration, but, I’m not telling you something you don’t already know.

As the Bengals take the field this Sunday, perhaps for the final time in the Lewis era, a myriad of emotions will likely be hitting all of those associated with the club. For fans, a combination of relief and nostalgia probably top the list.

For veteran Bengals players, there is likely going to be that same feeling of relief and excitement for what’s ahead. However, there is also probably an underlying sense of animosity from stars like Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, as they may feel that their best years have been wasted in the form of an 0-5 postseason record.

In these past six season finales between these two clubs, Cincinnati has been in the playoff hunt four times. Baltimore is in the postseason mix for the third time and they’ll undoubtedly be playing hard to definitively punch their January ticket against their division rival.

For Bengals fans, there is another sense of mixed emotions that doesn’t necessarily surround Lewis’ future. For those who embrace the old school mentality, never giving up and getting as many wins as possible proves that this team does have the heart and talent necessary for a 2018 turnaround. Whereas a seventh win further dips the Bengals into the middle of next year’s draft order, somewhat-handcuffing whoever is the next head coach.

For the second straight week, Cincinnati will be trotting out a number of players who didn’t see a lot of time earlier in the year. The offensive line will likely look completely different from that of Week 1 (and that may be a good thing), while other position groups are also severely dinged up.

On defense, both teams employ a number of stellar players. Baltimore is No. 9 in overall defense, 10th against the pass and No.. 14 against the run, which is propelling them to a potential postseason run.

Cincinnati is severely dinged up on defense, but Dunlap, Atkins, Carl Lawson and the often-absent Vontaze Burfict always strike fear in an opposing offense. Lawson is completing an improbable bid for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, as he leads the entire 2017 class with 8.5 quarterback sacks.

However, as most contests go, this one is about the quarterbacks. And fewer starting quarterbacks have varying degrees of public opinion than that of Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco.

This season, and, this game, are huge for Dalton and his 2018 job security. If Lewis, the guy who has steadfastly been in his corner since 2011, is gone in 2018, will he still be the starter after an 0-5 postseason record and two straight underachieving seasons?

Flacco, on the other hand, has a Super Bowl ring and a handful of other postseason wins to his name, which is the first automatic point of defense to his critics. The guy has played outstanding in big games, particularly in January, but he sometimes sleepwalks through the regular season.

Get this: since his entrance into the league (2011), Dalton has 25,312 yards, 164 touchdowns and 93 interception,s with an 88.7 quarterback rating. In that same span, Flacco has thrown for 25,371 yards, 138 touchdowns, 95 interceptions with an overall career rating of 81.4.

Cue the confused shrugs.

Regardless of your wishes on the outcome of this game, I see a hungry Baltimore team, and one who just knows how to win despite deficiencies, overmatching the beat-up Bengals. It’s a bit of a change from recent history and I think the youth-filled Bengals put up a fight, but we’ll likely get the familiar scenario of both the Ravens and Steelers back in the postseason.

Yuck.

Bengals 17, Ravens 20

AC: Fitting that this one’s on New Year’s Eve, right?