The AFC North is the most engaging and competitive division in the NFL right now. Each of the four teams is above .500, with just 1.5 games separating the top and bottom teams in the standings.
While each team sports a franchise quarterback, one team has lost theirs for the season, as the Cleveland Browns shut down Deshaun Watson for the year on Wednesday. So, the time for the other three teams to make their postseason move is now.
This Thursday night, the aforementioned top and bottom teams in the AFC North square off for their annual rematch. And, when looking at this game on paper, the visiting Cincinnati Bengals have an uphill battle to climb.
Reeling from a wacky loss, the Bengals are also dealing with a number of key injuries. The needed recoveries on these aren’t getting any favors with a short week and one with travel.
The defensive line has been particularly ravaged, with edge Trey Hendrickson dealing with ankle and knee issues over the past couple of weeks with his counterpart at the other edge spot, Sam Hubbard, also reeling with an ankle injury. Big interior lineman Josh Tupou has also missed the last couple of games with a shoulder problem.
Thankfully for Cincinnati, Hendrickson has appeared to make a miraculous recovery from an end-of-game knee hyperextension and is planning to play tomorrow night. But, it’s unclear the statuses of Hubbard, as well as two valuable receivers, Tee Higgins and Andrei Iosivas, have been designated as out.
The Ravens are pretty healthy right now, but two big injury concerns linger for them, too. Star left tackle Ronnie Stanley has been bitten by the injury bug once again and is out, while corner Marlon Humphrey is doubtful to play with a calf problem (we know a thing or two about those around these parts).
With the infirmary check completed, the in-game matchups are intriguing. For how competitive this rivalry has been over the past three years, Lamar Jackson has only lost to the Bengals once in his NFL career.
Now, that number is skewed a bit with his missing the last two matchups in the 2022 season, but the fact remains that Jackson has the Bengals’ number. And ironically, Jackson’s only game in which he suited up against Cincinnati in 2022 was an ugly Sunday night clash in Baltimore, with the Ravens kicking a last-second field goal to win, 19-17.
Uncharacteristic defensive issues that weren’t prevalent throughout much of the 2021 and 2022 runs by the Bengals have popped up this year. Gone are the days of the boringly effective Lou Anarumo units that forced punts in lieu of the game-changing plays. Here and now is a unit that has allowed a staggering amount of yards and big plays this year.
C.J. Stroud and the Texans put up 17 explosive plays on the Bengals’ defense this Sunday, bringing a high level of concern about the unit’s viability going forward. Its saving grace? Three forced turnovers against a Houston team that had been taking great care of the ball this year.
Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. has started to hit a bit of a stride with a touchdown reception apiece in each of the last two games. With guys like Tank Dell and Noah Brown going off last week against this secondary, things have to be corrected quickly to avoid catastrophe.
Conversely, the Ravens defense has been both explosive and a unit that allows the occasional huge comeback from the opposition. They are ferocious at getting after the passer, with their 39 sacks topping the league at the moment. Additionally, they are tied for the fourth-most interceptions netted in the league with 10 (Cincinnati’s group is tied for second-most with 12), so they create a ton of headaches for opposing offenses.
Baltimore’s rushing offense is No. 1 in the league in terms of total yards gained, while Cincinnati’s rushing offense is last in the NFL in said category. Cincinnati’s defense has given up the seventh-most rushing yards this year, and with questions about Hubbard and Tupou....oh boy.
You feeling that stucco press up against your back yet?
All of that being said, this game will come down to the play of the quarterbacks. Will Jackson be able to play his exciting and lethal style of backyard football that earned him NFL MVP honors a few years ago? Or will his occasional penchant to be careless with the football pop up again under the bright lights?
For Joe Burrow, it’s likely “hero ball” time this Thursday. He will undoubtedly need to channel his Houdini-like ability to escape from precarious pass-rush situations, given the Ravens’ ability to get home.
And, when standing in the pocket, he’ll need to slice and dice the Baltimore secondary. The margin for error in this one is razor-thin, so this may need to be one of those legendary performances that continues to fill up his already impressive resume in just his fourth pro season.
There are wild card players in this one, too, though. The tight ends for each team come into focus, with the great Mark Andrews needing to be harnessed by the Bengals’ defense and someone within the group of guys Cincinnati employs needing to potentially have the game of their life in this one.
Hyperbole? Maybe. Still, a Tanner Hudson breakout game would be a sight for sore eyes.
While he isn’t a forgotten player because he’s been a solid one for many years, Joe Mixon might be a key guy, too. The NFL’s last-ranked rushing unit as a team may need to step up its game to keep the Baltimore pass rush on its heels.
And, oddly enough, the kickers are always a fun watch in this one. Justin Tucker is one of the best to ever do it, while Evan McPherson has been reliable from deep distances over the past three seasons.
Nearly every key indicator and then some point to the Ravens coming out victorious in this one. Both teams are angry from how last week’s game went for each, but the Bengals are banged up and traveling on a short week, while Baltimore hasn’t gone away from M&T Bank Stadium since before Halloween.
However, we’ve seen this Cincinnati regroup well, and string together wins—both expected and unexpected. And, as we know, expect the unexpected in these divisional clashes, particularly on these shorter weeks.
A loss for either team doesn’t mean “season over” by any means, but Cincinnati’s outlook becomes far less comfortable at 5-5, a 1-5 conference standing, complete with a 1-3 divisional record. If the Ravens come up short, they’re still in the AFC North driver’s seat, even if temporarily, but they have the rest of the three teams nipping at their heels with what would be losses to each of the teams in the division.
I’ve gone back and forth on the result of this one. Almost everything points to Baltimore handling things at home against a less-than-100% Bengals squad. DraftKings has had the line hover at Ravens +3.5 to +4 this week.
We’ve also seen this Cincinnati crew take its biggest swings when they’re backed into a corner. Can they do it again?
Bengals 20, Ravens 17