The Baltimore Ravens notched their most impressive victory to-date last Sunday night in front of a national TV audience, downing the previously unbeaten New England Patriots 37-20 to move to 6-2 on the season.
Lamar Jackson continued his MVP-caliber season, going 17-for-23 for 163 yards and a passing touchdown to tight end Nick Boyle, the first of his NFL career. Jackson added 16 carries for 61 yards and two scores on the ground. For the second time this season, Jackson was named NFL Offensive Player of the Week and responded to that individual accolade as only Lamar could:
Jackson continues to worry most about his team accomplishments rather than focusing on the individual achievements and which awards he might be tracking towards this season. Jackson has firmly ensconced himself in the MVP race with 2,450 total yards, 17 touchdowns, and five interceptions so far this season. The attention continues to make him uncomfortable:
Whether Jackson likes it or not, the NFL has taken notice of his ascent to superstardom. To me, his most attractive trait is his unending desire to get better and his overall humility and hunger for greatness.
The Ravens will need both of these traits to shine through this weekend as they head to Cincinnati to take on an 0-8 Bengals that made a quarterback change during their bye week. Andy Dalton has hit the bench and rookie quarterback Ryan Finley will be under center for the Bengals as they look for their first win of the season.
Here’s what to watch for ahead of Sunday’s AFC North titlt.
1) Stay focused
It’s the National Football League. On any given Sunday, any team can come out victorious if you don’t bring your best stuff. Cincinnati is not going to roll over and die for any team, especially a division rival. The Ravens cannot afford to take the Bengals for granted.
Those are just four of the cliches you will hear all week as the Ravens go from facing an undefeated Patriots team in a raucous home atmosphere to taking on the woeful Bengals in what is sure to a half empty (at least) road stadium.
I went out to the season opener in 2017 when the Ravens laid the smackdown on the Bengals 20-0. Even on opening day, the atmosphere was non-existent. I shudder to think how quiet it will be when I return to Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday.
The Ravens rarely have a “let down” game throughout the tenure of John Harbaugh. Harbs and company always do a great job of hyping up the opponent no matter how poor they have been. Hell if you listen to Harbaugh talk this week, the Bengals have an offense resembling the Greatest Show on Turf from the Rams haydays. Jimmy Smith commented on the Bengals yesterday:
The defense still has a lot to prove this season as they rank 15th overall, surrendering 348.8 yards-per-game. They are also 26th in passing defense. With a rookie quarterback back there on Sunday, I expect the Ravens defense to have a field day and to make Finley’s life a living hell.
The Bengals always play the Ravens tough. Heck, the last two meetings against the Bengals were decided in six points or fewer. In Week 6 the Ravens topped the Bengals 23-17. Jackson’s first career start during the 2018 season saw the Ravens escape M&T Bank Stadium with a 24-21 decision over Cincinnati. There’s no excuse for Harbaugh and company to lose focus Sunday.
2) Pound the rock
The Bengals represent the NFL’s worst run defense, surrendering 435.8 yards-per contest. Moreover, they rank 32nd in rushing defense giving up 177.6 yards per contest. This game should promise to be another big day for the NFL’S number one ranked rushing offense on Sunday.
I stated on the podcast this week that I felt/knew the Ravens were over 170+ rushing yards under Jackson against the Bengals. Boy did I undershoot that one! In the two contests the Ravens have played the Bengals since Jackson took over, the Ravens have ran for 536 yards on 96 carries. At 5.5 yards-per-clip over those two games, the Ravens should have no reason not to commit to their bread and butter early and often.
Consider Jackson’s numbers alone against the Bengals on the ground: 45 carries for 271 yards and a touchdown. It’s early in his career and Jackson has been successful running the ball against nearly everyone, but he has owned the Bengals in the two matchups so far.
It’s especially important for the Ravens to do this considering Hollywood Brown is still working himself back from his ankle injury. He sat out the last game against the Bengals and the Ravens should be playing things ultra conservatively with their first-round pick for the rest of the year.
Pound the rock. Hit your short, intermediate passing options with the tight ends and underneath wideouts and maybe take a deep shot to Hollywood to keep the defense on their toes. But this is the KISS mantra to a tee for the Ravens on offense: Keep it simple stupid.
3) Get out of there with a win and your health
For me, this is one of those games where I am not entirely focused on how the win looks. If it is knock-down, drag em out, with the Ravens escaping late, that works for me. If it is a blowout as I am predicting, that works for me too.
With all the mentions of staying focused, it is still difficult to do so after such an emotional win over the defending champs. Would I be disappointed if the Ravens find themselves in a dog fight? Of course I would and we would all have a right to be.
But the most important thing Sunday (and every Sunday) is getting a win. Remember that 26-23 overtime win over the Steelers that frustrated Ravens fans so much? If the Ravens drop that game, both them and the Steelers would sit at 5-3 with the Steelers sitting in first place holding the tiebreaker.
Every game in the NFL is difficult to win. Especially road games. The Ravens need to focus on getting in and out of Cincinnati with a win regardless of how it looks. Staying healthy is paramount with the quartet of games the Ravens face after this one: Texans, Rams, 49ers, and Bills.
Those teams are a combined 25-8 this season. Get out of Cincy healthy and with a win and prepare to run the gauntlet.
Jake McDonnell: Ravens 38, Bengals 13
Nolan McGraw: Ravens 28, Bengals 23
Isaiah Stumpf: Ravens 31, Bengals 16
Ian Schultz: Ravens 31, Bengals 14
The Ravens are way too talented to have a let-down game in Cincinnati. Jackson and the offense keep rolling, the defense shuts down Finley, and the Ravens will get to 7-2 with a big road win over the Bengals.
Image Credit: Mitch Stringer- USA TODAY Sports