Well, would you look at this? Cincinnati sniffing around the playoff party like it’s ready to swipe a pie off the windowsill.
It’s been a minute. Last time the Bengals were even in sight of such a function was in 2015. They were regulars then, albeit boring ones. They were the type of party guest that never really takes his coat off and murmurs something about kids and work in the morning before quickly exiting the playoffs.
After that, they just slowly collapsed like one of those old barns you can see from the highway. The whole ordeal had become tragically stale and uninspired under the old Marvin regime. Vets got used to coasting to mediocrity, high draft picks burst into flames, and what was left when Zac Taylor took over was the cleanup job of a 16-year frat party.
It took some time to separate the dead weight from the keepable parts—seemed like there were some hard feelings and not much ceremony to those who departed from the team. The drafts got better, the team’s wallet finally saw the light of day, and now…
Also, during that time one got the sense that Mike Palpatine Brown may have relinquished team control to the more modern Sith lords within his family and the organization. Rather than the mom-and-pop shop that the Bengals operated as for decades, now it feels more like a nice discount supermarket of pro football. The Aldi’s of the NFL.
So, this new form of Bengal before us looks like they got their shit together enough to garner an eyebrow-raise of appreciation from the rest of the world. From ownership, to general management, to coaching, to the quarterback and the rest of the roster, the Men in Stripes can no longer be cast aside as an afterthought.
As a result, the Bengals are now lingering around the entrance to the playoff party, smoking their cigarette and thinking of what to say once they get inside. Weirdly, that’s a trend this season as only the Packers have gone in and are testing out different chairs around the place to decide which one they like the best.
Among the parking-lot crowd are the Ravens. They look rough. Thanks to Covid and good old-fashioned injury, they have scraped together a squad that looks more like a Civil War reenactment troupe than a playoff football team. How about Lamar Jackson? Nope. Tyler Huntley is also out. That trademark Ravens defense? Meh. Surely the run game? Not really, no.
The nuts and bolts of this game aren’t too complex. Baltimore is going to have to commit to stopping something against Joe Burrow and his mates. Whatever they choose, they are leaving major vulnerabilities elsewhere. Based on this season’s history and the Ravens’ poor run-defense measures, Zac Taylor will likely immediately test that soft underbelly of the wide-zone run game. Load the box against that and then Burrow can feel out a depleted secondary going against a legit ‘big three’ receiving corps. The onus will be on Taylor to identify where the weakness is, and pound it until the Baltimore defense is left dead and bloated. Once this offense begins to understand how it hurts itself more than being outplayed, they will become unstoppable and win the Super Bowl, perhaps multiple times.
Defensively, the recipe is not too crazy either. While pass rushing, edges should move up field, forcing Josh Johnson to try to escape through the interior of the Bengals defensive line.
This game doesn’t need to be a bloodbath. A normal 24-14 win might even be better in that it further displays to a young team what a standard win feels like. Sure, everyone loves 40 points, but style points aren’t a thing in the NFL.
It’s hard to imagine the Ravens just rolling over and not making it a challenge, getting in their car and flicking their cigarette at the playoff house party. But despite their jockeying around the doorway and mean mugging anyone that gets near them, it will be the sharper Bengals that will get one foot across the threshold this Sunday.
Bengals 24, Ravens 14
Mojokong—back from space.