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Bengals at Ravens game preview: Once more

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The Bengals head to Baltimore this Sunday in a must-win situation for both teams. Which major changes made this week will push one of these squads over the top?

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Very rarely does a season for an NFL team bring both immense, pleasant surprises and massive disappointments. For the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens in 2018, that’s been a major chapter in chronicling the year for the respective clubs.

Injuries and underperformance sandwiched around some nice wins has their respective fan bases extremely frustrated as Thanksgiving looms around the corner. It isn’t just the ticket purchasers having those frustrations boil over, though.

In The Queen City, Marvin Lewis seems to be running a nepotistic near-dictatorship with the Bengals, and the evidence became clear this past week. One of his big hires this offseason, Teryl Austin, was rightfully given his walking papers, while the 16-year head coach brought in his old pal Hue Jackson off of the scrap heap to his staff once again.

With these moves, Lewis is walking a fine line. After a 4-1 start, questions about the viability of this year’s Bengals team are growing louder. And, if Lewis as the de facto defensive coordinator with Jackson in a Dwight Schrute-ian role can’t get the Bengals to the postseason, how many more sacrificial lambs will be left?

Complicating matters for Lewis, Jackson, and the remaining members of the staff is the revolving door of injuries. Important players have left the lineup, with a smattering of others returning. It’s no surprise that the recent 1-3 skid by the Bengals has coincided with these ailments, as well as their being pitted against top offenses.

Oddly enough, this AFC North matchup that has major playoff implications this week has had a pretty quiet preview by the national media front. Baltimore’s season, and likely John Harbaugh’s future, hang in the balance, while the Bengals try to regain their footing in the conference playoff picture.

Unfortunately, perennial Raven-killer, A.J. Green, is doubtful this week. Some folks thought that Cincinnati had a chance to at least put up a fight last week against the Saints, but without Green, Bill Lazor’s group looked completely inept (as did Austin’s defense).

On the plus side of things, Cincinnati appears to be getting back two key players on defense in linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The team will need all hands on deck this week—both because of their defensive struggles and who will be playing quarterback for the Ravens.

Since Joe Flacco joined Baltimore back in 2008, he’s missed only one contest against the Bengals. Because of a hip injury he suffered in Week 9 against the Steelers, it appears that rookie Lamar Jackson will get his first start in his NFL career.

That sound you hear is Bengals fans’ teeth chattering.

Back in April, there was a small contingent of Who Dey nation clamoring for Lewis to draft Jackson in the first round. Cincinnati didn’t take him, or any heir apparent to Andy Dalton for that matter, while the former Heisman Trophy winner landed in Harbaugh’s lap at No. 32 overall.

The Ravens have used him in certain formations this year to small success. Jackson has ran 28 times for 139 and a touchdown, while completing 7-of-12 passes for 87 yards and another score. A good chunk of those stats came in garbage time in the blowout loss to the Panthers.

Interestingly enough, Lewis—a guy who built his NFL resume as a defensive guru—has had immense trouble with rookie signal-callers. It has particularly been the case with mobile quarterbacks.

Robert Griffin III and Deshaun Watson have been recent examples of fits being given to the Bengals. Even T.J. Yates and Mark Sanchez were under center for gigantic wins against Cincinnati in some of the team’s better defensive years.

These above-mentioned performances were against the likes of former Bengals defensive coordinators, Mike Zimmer and Paul Guenther. Now, the long-tenured Lewis has his grasp on the defense—a unit in which he hasn’t called plays for since 2004.

With the injuries, overall struggles within the unit and their track record against both unfamiliar and multi-dimensional quarterbacks, one has to wonder if Lewis have enough oomph to push them back to respectability. It will have to start this week with a difficult task against Jackson.

The questions aren’t just on Cincinnati’s defense, though. On the other sideline, the criticisms on Jackson coming into the draft surrounded his potential (in)ability to throw the football at the NFL level. Nobody questioned his athleticism and mobility, but does he have what it takes to carry a pro franchise with both his arm and legs?

If so, the division may have found its next young star under center to take the baton from Dalton and Ben Roethlisberger. And, it may also spell the end of Flacco’s tenure with the Ravens.

Wouldn’t it be oh-so-Bengals-like for them to show the courtesy of ushering in a new era to a young inner-divisional player?

In terms of talent to lean on, Jackson definitely has more at receiver than Flacco did in 2017. Sure, their incumbent starter has distributed the ball relatively well to the new trio of Willie Snead, John Brown and Michael Crabtree, but it’s only netted a 4-5 record. It will be interesting to see how Jackson will integrate these guys with his enigmatic skill set.

If Jackson is to get a win this week, he’ll need to show NFL intelligence beyond a normal rookie and lean on the team’s best weapon: Justin Tucker. The veteran kicker is 16-of-18 on field goal attempts and 21-of-22 on extra points this year. With Baltimore being a team that settles for three points more often than not, Tucker’s role looms large this Sunday once again.

As mentioned earlier, this game could be coined “The race for the sixth seed”. Baltimore is behind the eight ball a bit more than Cincinnati, being one game back and one of their losses being head-to-head. They also have troubling games against the Chargers, Falcons and Chiefs after this week, making this a must-win situation.

It’s sort of the same deal for the Bengals—for different reasons. They’re clinging to that final spot in the playoff bracket, but this is more about feeling good about their situation going forward. Cincinnati needs this win to get its confidence back as they head into a stretch of winnable games, including the Raiders, Broncos and two against the Browns.

For those viewing this contest, it will probably be a very ugly game. This one has all of the signs of a field goal-fest, with missed scoring opportunities and an overall low-scoring affair being the outcome.

Bengals 20, Ravens 16

AC — A win is a win, right?