The next best thing to making the playoffs is finishing the season on a high note and gaining momentum that energizes the offseason.
The Cincinnati Bengals have won two straight games without Joe Burrow. Winning their last game of the season, against the Baltimore Ravens, will certainly provide them with the kind of confidence that can get players to buy into what the team is building and start off 2021 with more wins. But this seems to be much more of an uphill battle than they’ve faced in a while.
The Ravens are 10-5. But so are four other teams: the Tennessee Titans, the Miami Dolphins, the Cleveland Browns, and the Indianapolis Colts. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs (14-1), the Buffalo Bills (12-3), and the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) have all clinched playoff spots. That means that two of those 10-5 teams will be eliminated in Week 17.
Baltimore heads into their matchup with Cincinnati with a head of steam. The Ravens have won four straight and are finally looking like the team that went 14-2 last year before losing in the second round to the Titans.
Back in Weeks 8 to 12, the Ravens lost four of five. Reigning-MVP Lamar Jackson missed a Week 12 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers due to the COVID-19 protocol. In the four games in that stretch that he did play, he threw 4 interceptions to only 5 touchdown passes. He had just one rushing touchdown and failed to top 65 yards on the ground in any of those games. Then, things started to click again.
From Weeks 13 to 16, Jackson had 8 touchdown passes and only 2 interceptions. He added four rushing touchdowns and reached 80 yards rushing in three of the four games.
Now the third-year quarterback gets to face a Bengals team that he’s embarrassed on more than one occasion in his short career. In five games against Cincinnati, Jackson has 345 yards rushing and 789 yards passing. Both are the most he has against any team but the Cleveland Browns, whom he has played six times. And who can forget perhaps the most iconic moment of his MVP campaign, when he spun around - and seemingly through - three Bengals defenders on his way to a 47-yard touchdown run in Week 10 of last year.
On Sunday, the Bengals’ defense will also have to deal with running back Gus Edwards, who is averaging a healthy 5.0 yards per carry and whose north-south running style complements Jackson well.
Meanwhile, the Bengals’ offense will be facing a much more challenging opponent than they did against the Houston Texans, whose defense is depleted, leaving them with an almost non-existent pass rush. Cincinnati’s o-line will have its hands full with a Ravens d-line that ravaged them for seven sacks in their Week 5 matchup.
Allen had a tremendous game against the Texans. In fact, Pro Football Focus graded it as the best performance by a Bengals QB all year. He picked Houston apart to the tune of 371 yards and multiple deep strikes to Tee Higgins, A.J. Green, and even Alex Erickson.
Against Baltimore, things won’t be so easy, says John Sheeran in the video below. That’s because of the Ravens’ secondary’s ability to collapse on routes and take advantage of mistakes. While Marcus Peters will be out, Allen will still have to face the trio of cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott.
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However, there is some historical precedent that works in the Bengals’ favor. As Jay Morrison pointed out, the Bengals have won twelve straight home finales when they had a losing record, and seventeen of their last 18.
Here are the details on the "Send 'Em Home Happy" stat, which applies when the #Bengals enter their home finale with a losing record.— Jay Morrison (@JayMorrisonATH) December 29, 2020
12 wins in a row and 17 of last 18.
And, of course, there was that glorious Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd touchdown pass on 4th and 12 with 45 seconds left in Baltimore in 2017 that knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs.
Lastly, while the Ravens defense is talented, injuries have taken a toll on the defensive backfield. Since Week 10, Baltimore’s defensive backs have allowed 9 touchdowns with 0 interceptions and seen their pass defense DVOA drop from seventh to twenty-sixth. So it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Allen has another strong game.
Yes, the Bengals shouldn’t be expected to win. But if their recent improvement is real, then they should at least keep this game competitive. Allen is no Burrow, but he - along with Samaje Perine - have demonstrated that they are capable of assuming the bulk of the load.
The Monday Night game against the Steelers was one of the worst games of Ben Roethlisberger’s career. And the Bengals had a couple of early turnovers go their way. Plus, Pittsburgh was (and perhaps still is) going through a rough spell. The Texans (4-10) never really posed a great challenge on defense.
This is the first time we get to see the rejuvenated Bengals against a team on a roll. If they collapse, like they did against the Ravens earlier in the season, we will know that they are still the same old poorly-coached team. But if they make things interesting, it will give far more meaning to those other two wins and be a great way to end the season, as it will give Burrow and company the inspiration they need to start next year stronger.