There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it now: The Cincinnati Bengals’ backs are to the corner.
Losing to the Texans pushed them back to the outside of the playoff picture, and with a division game against the Baltimore Ravens looming on Thursday Night Football on the road with little rest, the Bengals will be fighting an uphill battle. If they lose, it will be a potential first hammer blow to the final nail in their 2023 season’s coffin.
If they win, however, their chances of not only getting into the playoffs as a Wild Card team increase, but their dreams of being the first AFC North team to win the division for three consecutive years are rejuvenated.
Remember, they were 5-4 in 2021 and 2022 before they went on to play in the AFC Championship those years.
And cornered animals can be scary. I once cornered an opossum, thinking it would faint when I lunged at it. Needless to say, I now have a very healthy fear of the things.
Having said that, here are a few matchups to keep an eye on.
Trey Hendrickson vs. Patrick Mekari
Don’t ask me how Hendrickson is playing, because I don’t know the answer. Based on how he had to be helped off the field, I figured he would miss at least a few weeks, so the fact he’s playing is nothing short of a miracle.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley is out, and Mekari is expected to take his place at left tackle. If Hendrickson truly is good to go, I expect him to do what he’s done all season: Sack the quarterback.
If Hendrickson isn’t 100%, this could be an interesting matchup.
Joseph Ossai/Myles Murphy vs. Morgan Moses
The opposite defensive end, Sam Hubbard, has already been ruled out for Thursday night, and he’ll be replaced mostly by a rotation of these two guys, and maybe the defense will ride with one of them if they start to be effective.
Moses has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury but has practiced fully so far this week and will play. Again, if he’s not quite 100%, this could be a big matchup. However, mostly, I’d like to see either Ossai come out of his shell as a pass rusher or Murphy start to live up to that lofty No. 28 overall pick.
Bengals linebackers and safeties vs. Mark Andrews/Zay Flowers
It’s no secret Andrews is among the elite tight ends in the league, alongside guys like Travis Kelce and George Kittle. Andrews is second in receiving yards on the Ravens, only trailing the rookie Zay Flowers by 24 yards. Flowers has quickly become Jackson’s most reliable target. Considering the vast majority of the experience in the Bengals secondary is at the cornerback spot, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Ravens attempt to get their rookie slot receiver and tight end matched up against the Bengals' linebackers and safeties.
Linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt are among the best coverage linebackers in the league, but Dax Hill, Nick Scott, and Jordan Battle are very inexperienced at safety, and it can show.
Lou Anarumo vs. Ravens running game
It’s not a secret that the Ravens' offensive power comes from their running game. The Ravens have the most rushing yards in the NFL by a wide margin, and that’s exactly what they’re going to try to do on Thursday night.
It’s not that the Bengals don’t have the players to stop it, because they have the best run-stuffing nose tackle in the league, DJ Reader. However, the unique problem the Bengals defense faces is how to defend against the pass and run at the same time. That’s Lou Anarumo’s job. He’s had a pretty decent track record against mobile quarterbacks, but mobile barely describes what Jackson is capable of.
Bengals offensive line vs. Ravens pass rush
Guess which team simultaneously boasts the defense with the most sacks at the same time as having chosen the vastly inferior blackbird to be their team’s mascot...
Yeah, it’s the Ravens.
Crows are infinitely cooler than Ravens, and that’s a hill I’ll die on all day. You can train crows to be your friends, but you can also train them to hassle your enemies. Plus, a gathering of crows is called a freaking murder. That’s the most metal name for a gathering of any animal ever. The name for a group of Ravens is called “unkindness,” which is the most aggressively British thing ever. If the NFL wants to move a team to London, it should be the Ravens. They’ll fit right in.
The Ravens' defense has racked up the most sacks to this point in the NFL with 39. The Bengals' offensive line has had some ups and downs, but they need to have an up game. Joe Burrow is going to be without his No. 2, Tee Higgins, and his No. 2 outside receiver replacement, Andrei Iosivas.
He still has great weapons, though. Obviously, they are Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd, which would be an excellent one-two punch for 99 percent of the teams in the NFL, but they also have Charlie Jones, who could be activated, as well as good ol’ Trenton Irwin.
What I’m trying to say is this: Joe Burrow may need an extra second to find his receiver, especially if Chase is being blanketed like I’m expecting the Ravens defense will. Hopefully, the offensive line can give him that.
The Bengals offense vs. itself
Yes, the Bengals offense is (mostly) back, at least compared to what we saw from them early in the season. Yes, they’ve won two of their last three games. However, they left a lot of points on the field against the 49ers and Bills, and they shot themselves in the foot more than once against the Texans.
The Bengals are capable of winning this game, and the offense is capable of putting up 40-plus points. However, in order to do it, they need to get out of their own way.