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Bengals at Ravens Game Preview: Blackbird singing in the dead of night

The Ravens and Bengals headline the slate of Week 7 NFL games on Sunday. Can Cincinnati step up in a big moment?

When the 2021 NFL schedule was released many folks believed Week 7 for the Baltimore Ravens would provide little more than a speed bump on their quest for a probable AFC Title crown. The seemingly-incessant rebuild going on with Cincinnati would continue this year, with the Bengals struggling to find their footing, while John Harbaugh’s crew would continue their divisional dominance.

Well, more than a third of the way through the “football year” and the Bengals are right in the thick of it. They’re sitting right behind these Ravens at 4-2 in the AFC North, having already beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the Cleveland Browns also look up to them in the current standings.

Heading into the game, the Bengals are +6 underdogs with the over/under set at 46, according to DraftKings sportsbooks.

Their record misleads both critics and supporters. For the former group, the Bengals are just six points (three per game, including an overtime loss) from joining the Arizona Cardinals as the only 6-0 squads. While the latter needs to realize that none of the beaten teams currently have a record over .500 and two of those four victories were one possession eke-outs.

While things seems to be finally moving in the right direction for the Bengals under Zac Taylor, big opportunities to make statements continue to be available for the taking. Some found moral victories in the tough loss to Green Bay a few weeks ago, but the matchup on deck are the ones wherein Taylor can cement his long-term standing with the Bengals.

To the young coach’s credit, he’s found a way to beat Pittsburgh twice in five tries, as well as Cleveland twice. Not necessarily a bad feat when using a combination of four quarterbacks in his two-plus seasons as the Bengals’ head coach.

Still, it’s those struggles against the Ravens that stick out like a sore thumb. Not just because of his predecessor’s (Marvin Lewis) relative success against the Ravens, but this game serves as yet another barometer for the progress this current team has made under Taylor.

Save for one of Andy Dalton’s last starts for the Bengals back in 2019, Taylor’s teams have been absolutely blown out in the other three matchups since. How bad has it been, you ask?

Well, in the last three matchups between these two squads, the Ravens have outscored the Bengals, 114-19. Yes, you read that correctly—almost a 32-point margin of victory for Baltimore in the past three contests.

Yet, only one of those games featured many important Bengals players who are currently credited with the solid 4-2 start this year. For instance, critical players to the success of 2021 including Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Jonah Williams, Riley Reiff, Logan Wilson, Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi, D.J. Reader, Mike Hilton and Jackson Carman have combined for four Bengals starts/appearances as Cincinnati players.

A different Bengals team.

Let’s also not pretend that the Bengals haven’t pulled out a miracle here and there against the Ravens and that this game brings the old adage of “expect the unexpected”, either.

Like this one in Carson Palmer’s first year as a starter:

Or this one from Palmer and the unlikely hero, Andre Caldwell:

Or, for those more recent Bengals (and Buffalo Bills) fans, there’s the Tyler Boyd-career-trajectory-turning play from the last game of the 2017 season:

So, if we’re pointing out important players this week, No. 83 for Cincinnati is up there at the top of the list. With their accrued injuries, Baltimore is undoubtedly going to try and take Ja’Marr Chase out of the equation at all costs and it should pave the way for Boyd to create plays between the hashes, as has been his forte.

On the other side of the ball, Josh Bynes is suddenly becoming a huge key to this game. Yes, that Josh Bynes.

Throughout the spring and summer, we received countless questions on what the future of Bynes would be from both Cincy Jungle readers and Orange and Black Insider podcast listeners. After all, he was a steady presence on a defense in a transitional 2020 season.

When he quietly landed with Baltimore late in the summer via their practice squad, not much else was made of said queries. Then, last week, Bynes suddenly stepped into the middle linebacker spot to help relieve the seemingly-overwhelmed Patrick Queen.

It was part of the formula in a dominant victory over the media darling Los Angeles Chargers and seems to be the plan this week. So, while Bynes isn’t a perennial Pro Bowl player, his steadiness in the middle could not only improve one linebacker spot, but two, as Queen may rely more on instincts and athleticism over “thinking too much”.

We could also see the impact of signing a player familiar with the previous system take place. Bynes knows Burrow and the things Taylor attempted to install with Burrow in his rookie season. And, if there has been a problem in an otherwise superb season by No. 9, it’s a sneaky linebacker coming into view late in plays.

The Bengals need to score points at a greater multitude, as evidenced by the lopsided nature of the past three contests. And, for the most part, that’s on the offense.

However, when you look at many of the high-profile acquisitions of the past couple of years by the Bengals, you’ll see that this game and the Ravens’ offensive attack has been circled on the calendar. The free agent contracts given to many of the aforementioned names and the additions of many players on the defensive side of the ball through the draft point to Taylor’s acknowledgement of the importance and past failures in this contest.

Yet, despite all of the talk of offensive and defensive stars, this one may come down to special teams — namely the kicker.

Baltimore employs one of the best kickers we’ve ever seen in Justin Tucker, while Cincinnati hopes it has its own iteration in rookie Evan McPherson. Both have won high-profile games this year and Week 7 may come down to their respective right legs.

A form of poetic justice could occur on Sunday, oddly enough from the special teams unit. McPherson, who some have unfairly compared to Tucker, could be called upon to kick a big one in this battle. The opposite could also occur with Tucker asked to hit something similar to the NFL record-setter we saw in Detroit a few weeks ago.

In truth, there are so many other factors to play into this one, as well. The offensive line, accrued injuries and quarterback play also remain paramount. But, in such a huge game such as this, using the periphery on other contributing factors is crucial.

If this contest were a week later, almost everything about it would embody the Halloween holiday. The Bengals’ orange and black jersey colors, as well as the ominous colors of the Ravens and their association with Edgar Allen Poe and you would have had...poetry.

Alas, we quoth the Raven a week early than its traditional autumnal calling.

Bengals 23, Ravens 27

AC — “That years of love have been forgot, in the hatred of a minute...” — EAP