Just two years ago, the roles were reversed.
The Ravens met the Cincinnati Bengals on the last Sunday of the 2020 regular season and made mincemeat of their divisional foe, bashing out 404 rushing yards to clinch a playoff berth for the third year in a row. At that point, they had won their last three games against the Bengals by a combined score of 114-19.
Little did we know the seeds of change were already in the ground. The Bengals had parlayed their futility into a franchise quarterback, Joe Burrow, who had demonstrated his promise in the face of terrible punishment through that 2020 season. Four months later, they would draft another offensive superstar in wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
In Baltimore, Lamar Jackson was one year removed from winning NFL Most Valuable Player honors and still the king bee of AFC North quarterbacks, but his contractual future was about to become as big a story as his play.
Now, we jump to the present and the impending matchup between the Ravens, struggling to find any offensive spark with Jackson sidelined by a knee injury, and the Bengals, enjoying a second straight division title with their ambitions firmly fixed on a repeat trip to the Super Bowl.
These two teams are still not far apart on paper. The Ravens defeated the Bengals in Week 5 and led the AFC North most of the season. They might have played for the division title Sunday if not for the chilling on-field collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, which prompted the NFL to declare last Monday’s Bills-Bengals game a no contest. The Ravens could still capture home-field advantage via coin flip if they win the season finale in Cincinnati. Even with reduced stakes this weekend, there’s a good chance they will meet the Bengals again in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Despite their proximity in the standings, however, the Ravens and Bengals have moved in opposite directions over the last two months and more broadly, over the last two years. The Bengals have won seven games in a row, with Burrow throwing fearlessly and accurately into the teeth of defenses designed to stop him. He’s surrounded by big, fleet pass catchers and bolstered by an efficient running game. As the Bengals soared, the Ravens trudged. They secured a playoff berth with Tyler Huntley filling in for Jackson at quarterback but have scored a mere 59 points over their last five games.
Analytics tell the same story. The Ravens are actually ahead of the Bengals in DVOA, Football Outsiders’ measure of overall team efficiency, for the season. Over the last seven weeks, however, the Bengals have ranked sixth, while the Ravens have ranked 14th. The gap is wider if we look just at offense, with the Bengals fourth and the Ravens 23rd over that span.
Do you prefer betting odds? Again, same story. The Bengals are a +750 bet to win the Super Bowl, according to Las Vegas sportsbooks. The Ravens are +3000.
In the standings and in the minds of most outside observers, Cincinnati is now the team to beat in the AFC North.
“Of course,” Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen said. “They were the last team there to win it. [They] got to the Super Bowl. I know some of them will say it runs through them, so now we’ve got to go through there at their home place and try to take it back.”
Coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that the Ravens can’t simply follow the same plan they did in Week 5 and assume the result — a tense, 19-17 win — will be identical. “They’re the same, but they’re better than they were then,” he said.
This is not a week for animosity, not after players and coaches around the league dropped everything to pray for Hamlin, whose heart had to be restarted on the field in Cincinnati. Harbaugh admired the way Bengals coach Zac Taylor conducted himself in the moments after the trauma. Ravens players watched Burrow embrace Bills quarterback Josh Allen as they both feared for Hamlin’s life.
It was a dose of perspective that pushed games and rivalries to the back burner. The Ravens and Bengals will play their next snaps on the very field where Hamlin fell. How this will change the tone of the confrontation is anyone’s guess.
“Obviously, this is something that I think for this whole week — and probably for many weeks to come — it’s going to be in the back of everyone’s minds, especially the guys that are playing,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said. “But I don’t think this alters the way you play. I think you go out there, be yourself and everything else will take care of itself.”
Burrow offered similar thoughts to Cincinnati reporters: “As unusual as this week has been, it’s business as usual from a football standpoint. I don’t even really know what to say about it, because it’s such a scary, emotional time, and guys still have a football game to play on Sunday. It’s our job to get out there and execute and play the game we need to play it to win.”
He said his mind didn’t turn to the Ravens until Wednesday.
There’s also the practical question of whether the Ravens and Bengals will rest key players, though that’s likely with home-field advantage still at stake. On Monday, Harbaugh said he would be inclined to go all-out for the win, because the Ravens will at least have a chance to move up to the No. 5 seed in the AFC if the Denver Broncos beat the Los Angeles Chargers.
If they remain at No. 6, however, there’s a possibility they will go right back to Cincinnati for their playoff opener. This raises strategic questions: Will the Ravens treat the Bengals as a two-week problem and hold their best tricks in reserve for a possible playoff matchup?
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said the possibility is on their minds.
“It certainly could [factor into our approach],” Roman said. “We’re going to try to go win the game no matter what the situation is. But will it change strategy? It could. It certainly could.”
“A whole lot of unknowns,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “At the end of the day, we’re focused on what we do know, and we’ll give it our best shot.”
How will that best shot land against a rival that’s playing so well? The Bengals were off to an uneven start when last they met the Ravens, and Macdonald bottled them up with two-high coverage designed to keep Burrow’s top playmakers from getting downfield. Will Macdonald again eschew aggression at the line of scrimmage in hopes of preventing deep strikes?
The Ravens know too well that the Bengals can light them up if they’re a step off in planning or execution. Burrow threw for a combined 941 yards in a pair of blowout victories over them last season.
“The stats speak for themselves. The film speaks for itself,” Macdonald said. “Burrow at quarterback, he’s incredibly efficient with the ball and makes very fast decisions. At one point in time, they have up to five guys that are potential matchup problems. … They’re clicking on all cylinders right now.”
Ravens at Bengals
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Bengals by 9