From the moment the Cincinnati Bengals’ Week 17 game vs. the Buffalo Bills was officially cancelled, this matchup was destined to repeat itself in the Wild Card round. The Baltimore Ravens are coming back to Paycor Stadium to try and play spoiler to the Bengals’ aspirations of returning to the Super Bowl, and they won’t hold anything, or anyone, back to do so.
We witnessed yesterday how divisional rivalries can incite oddities in postseason action when the Seattle Seahawks gave the San Francisco 49ers a second-quarter scare. The 49ers pulled away because they were the better team, plain and simple. And the same should apply for Cincinnati tonight, despite the dangers Baltimore possesses as a team.
Here are a few significant matchups to watch for tonight.
Max Scharping vs. Justin Madubuike
The Ravens need every advantage they can identify, and they’ll be banking on this matchup being one of them.
Scharping is the next man up for an offensive line that’s starting to embody that statement. Last year’s Super Bowl run was ultimately stifled due to a lack of talent protecting Joe Burrow, and familiar feelings are starting to appear as the revamped right side of the line is down to its reserves. But the fourth-year veteran and former second-round pick won’t be a wide-eyed liability, as evidenced from his pass-blocking productivity during his time with the Houston Texans. Scharping is good enough to survive.
Generating push in the run game is going to be the challenge against a player like Madubuike, who had a handful of run stops last weekend.
Joe Mixon vs. Roquan Smith
A normally stout Ravens run defense did not finish the regular season in a great place. They ranked 24th in success rate allowed against the run over the last five weeks of the year, which should’ve invoked confidence for the Bengals entering Week 18. Unfortunately, Mixon and company couldn’t get much of anything going on the ground last Sunday, mainly because of Smith.
Now the highest-paid off-ball linebacker in the NFL, Smith had a whale of a game against the Bengals in all phases. Eight of his 11 tackles were stops for the defense, and six were against Mixon. Factor in the fuel Smith has added with his comments, and Mixon may be running extra hard to meet him in the holes.
DJ Reader vs. Tyler Linderbaum
Many Bengals fans bemoaned when the Ravens selected Tyler Linderbaum in last year’s NFL Draft, foreseeing performances like he put together last week against one of the best nose tackles in the league. Linderbaum had a great game sealing out Reader in the run game as the Ravens found success running the ball on the Bengals. That is not something Reader wants to have happen twice in a row.
Since returning from a torn MCL, Reader hasn’t quite put together two complete games in a row. The flashes of dominance show up every week, but for the standard he established, it’s been inconsistent after his recovery. The cerebral and powerful nose tackle will be primed to bounce back against the rookie center.
Eli Apple vs. Demarcus Robinson
As of this writing, we still don’t know for sure who will be quarterbacking for the Ravens, but the assumption is Tyler Huntley will be under center. If and when he gets the nod, the focus will be on Mark Andrews and Robinson, as the duo received a combined 40 targets during Huntley’s four-week run as the starter while Lamar Jackson was sidelined.
Defending Andrews takes a literal village effort, but Apple will get to be isolated against Robinson like he was on Sunday. Anthony Brown was just two for six whilst targeting Robinson with Apple in coverage. Andrews will get his; it’s up to Apple to ensure Robinson doesn’t get in on the fun as well.