BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens will return from their bye week at 4-5 and slotted into the ninth seed in the AFC playoff picture when they welcome the 5-4 Cincinnati Bengals to Baltimore on Sunday at 1:00pm at M&T Bank Stadium.
The bye week is typically a time when teams are able to get healthy, step away from football, and reset their minds for the push for the playoffs. Ideally bye weeks are uneventful but that was not the case for the Ravens.
That wasn’t it for La Canfora as he reported on Sunday that the Ravens and Head Coach John Harbaugh were heading for a “mutual parting of ways” at season’s end.
The first of these bye week stories for the Ravens has continued to play out this week as the Ravens still have not committed to who will be under center this Sunday against the Bengals. The second of these stories is something that we have expected could be possible for this Ravens team if they once again fail to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
These aren’t ideal ways for the team to be spending their bye week. The Ravens need to be focused on Sunday as they are playing for their season. A loss would put the Ravens at 4-6 and drop their playoff probability to 7.6% per ESPN. A win puts the Ravens’ playoff chances at 43%.
Here’s what to watch for ahead of Sunday’s divisional clash with the Bengals.
1) Who is under center for the Ravens?
It was the biggest story in Baltimore during the bye week and rightfully so. Many fans are ready to hand the keys to the Ravens offense over to the rookie sensation in first round pick Lamar Jackson. They have grown tired of Joe Flacco’s lack of production and are ready to see what Jackson can do. Jackson, however, missed practice on Thursday due to a stomach ailment. We will see if that impacts his chances to start on Sunday.
Others feel that Robert Griffin III gives the Ravens the best chance to win if Flacco is unable to play on Sunday. He has far more experience than Jackson but he has not played in a regular season NFL game since Jan. 1, 2017 when he was under center for the Cleveland Browns’ season-ending loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The long and short of it is this. I do not expect Flacco to play this Sunday against the Bengals. Flacco has been brutal against the Bengals lifetime and I believe that the Ravens are looking to go a different way at quarterback this week. We likely won’t know for sure which quarterback is going to play until the injury reports come out Friday and the inactives come out on Sunday.
It shouldn’t matter who is under center this Sunday. The Bengals’ defense set a modern day NFL record by allowing over 500 yards in three straight games. In that stretch they played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, and New Orleans Saints but 500 yards is 500 yards. The week prior against the Steelers, they surrendered 481 total yards.
The Bengals are last in total defense and pass defense. They are 31st in rush defense and points-per-game allowed. The league average is 361.58. The Bengals are giving up 454.6. Marvin Lewis has taken over the play-calling after defensive coordinator Terryl Austin was fired this week.
Who will be under center for the Ravens this Sunday? It shouldn’t matter. The offense should be able to be productive regardless of which quarterback starts. With that being said my guess is Jackson will get his first NFL start.
2) Can the defense regain their form?
Numbers are a funny thing. They can be used to support your point or dispel others. It has often been said that numbers never lie.
The Ravens’ defense is tied for second in total defense, allowing 305 yards-per-game. They allow just 17.8 points-per -game, ranking them second in the NFL.
Furthermore, the Ravens are fourth in third down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 35.2% of their third down opportunities on the season. They are tied for seventh with 28 sacks on the season as well. So why does a defense who ranks top ten in all of these major categories need to regain their form?
It is because these numbers lie. The Ravens’ defense has been marginal at best during the team’s three-game losing streak. Gone are the days of 11-sack games like the one the Ravens had in Tennessee. Over the past three games the Ravens have just two sacks. Opponents are converting 52.4% of their third down opportunities. They are giving up an average of 375 yards-per-game, slightly above the league average.
In other words, while the overall season numbers say otherwise, the Ravens’ defense has become middle of the pack. I said it on the podcast this week and will continue to beat this drum for the rest of the year. The Ravens will go as far as their defense is capable of taking them. They are still the more talented and capable unit in comparison with the offense.
The Ravens defense is facing clouds of uncertainty this coming offseason. Veterans like Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs could be looking at retirement or being cap casualties. Linebacker C.J. Mosley will be looking to be compensated as a top five middle linebacker despite rarely looking the part. Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith could also be cut this offseason in moves to help the Ravens save cap space. Za’Darius Smith is in a contract year and could be on his way out of town as well.
With six starters status in flux for next season, now is the time for this defense to rally the troops and put together a dominant month and a half of football to lead this Ravens team to the playoffs.
3) Can the Ravens get the Cincinnati monkey off their backs?
Remember when everyone used to refer to the football team that plays in Cincinnati as the Bungles? From 1991-2004 the Bengals had 0 winning seasons. They were one of the laughing stocks of the NFL and a team that didn’t merit much consideration when talking about potential playoff teams.
Fast forward to 2018 and the Bengals have been to the playoffs five of the last seven years. Depite not winning a game in the playoffs the Bengals have been able to find the postseason more often than the Ravens in recent times. Cincinnati currently occupies the final playoff spot in the AFC this season to date as well.
The Bengals have owned the Ravens over the last ten matchups, boasting a record 8-2. The only two victories for the Ravens came in the season opener in 2017 when the Ravens blanked the Bengals 20-0 and in the first meeting in 2016 when the Ravens won 19-14. The Ravens had won five of six in the series prior to the Bengals’ recent run of dominance.
One thing that bodes well for the Ravens Sunday is that Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver and noted Raven killer A.J. Green figures to miss Sunday’s contest with a toe injury. Green dominated the team’s week two 34-23 Bengals win, tallying five catches for 69 yards and three first half touchdowns.
Joe Mixon is a threat at running back for Cincinnati and we all remember what Tyler Boyd did to the Ravens last season as he snatched their playoff hopes right out of their hands with a 49-yard fourth-and-12 touchdown catch with :44 seconds left at M&T Bank Stadium in the 2017 season finale.
The Ravens desperately need to exorcise their Cincy demons this Sunday and get their playoff chances back on track.
Jake McDonnell– Bengals 27 Ravens 24
Nolan McGraw– Bengals 28 Ravens 19
Jay Stavros– Ravens 20 Bengals 17
Ian Schultz– Ravens 23 Bengals 13
The Ravens need to win this game. John Harbaugh needs to win this game. Whether the Ravens choose to part ways with Harbaugh at the end of the season or not is irrelevant. This team believes they can still make one final run to the playoffs. It starts Sunday against the Bengals when Harbaugh improves to 9-2 out of the bye and the Ravens right the ship.
Image Credit: USA Today