The Ravens squandered another lead in the last two minutes against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cincinnati Bengals have passed them in the AFC North and are targeting a repeat trip to the Super Bowl. Which team will have the advantage Sunday?
Ravens passing game vs. Bengals pass defense
The Ravens have scored just 59 points in five games with backup Tyler Huntley as their primary quarterback and rank 25th in Football Outsiders’ pass DVOA over that span. Huntley played well through the first three quarters of the Ravens’ Week 17 loss to the Steelers, rediscovering his connection with tight end Mark Andrews, who caught nine passes on nine targets for his first 100-yard game since Week 6. But the Ravens stalled in the fourth quarter, picking up just one first down and failing to score even after running back Justice Hill set them up with a 56-yard kickoff return. Huntley has completed 67% of his throws but has averaged just 5.9 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He largely ignored his wide receivers against Pittsburgh, finding them for two completions on five targets for 18 yards. Huntley’s availability for Week 18 was in question after he was limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday because of wrist and right shoulder injuries. If he can’t go, rookie Anthony Brown would start.
Though the Ravens beat the Bengals in Week 5, Lamar Jackson threw for just 174 yards with an interception. Cincinnati’s pass defense is vulnerable without top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who’s out for the season. Eli Apple, who is questionable with a neck injury, and rookie Cam Taylor-Britt are not on his level. Defensive end Sam Hubbard, who was inactive Monday night because of a calf injury and limited at Wednesday’s practice, is expected to play. He has given the Ravens problems in past meetings. The Bengals have won seven games in a row, but even during that streak, they’ve ranked just 16th in pass DVOA. They blitz on just 19.3% of drop-backs and rank 29th in sacks. That said, Trey Hendrickson (six sacks, 22 quarterback hits) is still a dangerous edge rusher, while Jessie Bates III (three interceptions, seven passes defended) and Vonn Bell (four interceptions, seven passes defended) form one of the best safety duos in the league.
Bengals passing game vs. Ravens pass defense
After a relatively sluggish start, quarterback Joe Burrow (4,260 yards, 34 touchdowns) has hit his stride again. The Bengals have ranked sixth in pass DVOA during their seven-game winning streak. For the season, they’re fourth in third-down conversion rate and fifth in touchdown percentage from the red zone. They’re the anti-Ravens, with an embarrassment of pass-catching riches led by wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase (960 yards, eight touchdowns in 11 games) and Tee Higgins (14 yards per catch, seven touchdowns). The Ravens did a good job keeping the Bengals in front of them in Week 5, limiting Chase to seven catches on 12 targets for 50 yards. Higgins missed much of that game because of an ankle injury. Former Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst actually did the most damage, with six catches on seven targets and a touchdown.
The Ravens sent little pressure against Burrow, who punished their blitzes in a pair of embarrassing losses last season. But it will be interesting to see if defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald switches up his tactics this time to take advantage of Cincinnati’s vulnerable offensive line, playing without starting right tackle La’el Collins. Macdonald will hope to have cornerback Marcus Peters, who missed the last two games with a calf injury and is questionable. If Peters can’t go, fill-in Brandon Stephens will face one of the sternest tests of his career from Chase, Higgins and Tyler Boyd. The Ravens have struggled to get off the field in end-of-half and end-of-game scenarios, and this weakness bit them against Steelers rookie Kenny Pickett, who led an 80-yard, game-winning drive last Sunday.
Ravens running game vs. Bengals run defense
Running back J.K. Dobbins posted another strong game against Pittsburgh with 93 yards on 17 carries and one of the most impressive 2-yard gains you’ll ever see. Overall, the Steelers outrushed the Ravens 198-120, and Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he was unhappy Dobbins’ partner, Gus Edwards, carried the ball just three times. Edwards had been the team’s most productive runner with 99 yards on 11 carries the previous week against the Atlanta Falcons. Huntley (3.2 yards per carry) is a threat to scramble but significantly less dangerous than Jackson on designed runs.
The Bengals allowed 155 rushing yards against the Ravens in Week 5, but they’ll be bolstered by the presence of their top interior defender, D.J. Reader, who was injured for the first meeting. He’s one of the best defensive linemen in football. Linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt have also played well, combining for 210 tackles. The Bengals have held four of their last five opponents below 100 yards.
Bengals running game vs. Ravens run defense
The Ravens are licking their wounds after the Steelers blew them off the ball and ran past them on the edges. The Baltimore run defense had been tops in the league since the arrival of Pro Bowl linebacker Roquan Smith, but Smith and his partner, Patrick Queen, did little to stuff Pittsburgh’s power run game.
The Ravens will need to do better against a Bengals attack that has ranked third in rush DVOA over the last seven games. Running back Joe Mixon (787 yards, six touchdowns) is always the focus, but Samaje Perine is a solid complement, and Burrow (five touchdowns) can’t be ignored on scrambles or at the goal line. Mixon gained 78 yards on 14 carries in Week 5, though the Ravens have traditionally played well against him. The return of Calais Campbell, who tested his injured knee before the Steelers game but did not play, would bolster Macdonald’s defense.
Ravens special teams vs. Bengals special teams
After a rare stretch of special teams difficulties, the Ravens rebounded against the Steelers with Hill’s 56-yard return, good situational punting from rookie Jordan Stout and a perfect night from Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker. They’re back up to No. 2 in special teams DVOA.
The Bengals rank 21st in DVOA thanks to an uneven season from talented kicker Evan McPherson, who has missed five field goal attempts and four extra-point tries. McPherson is perfect from 50 yards or beyond, so he remains a weapon late in halves and games. The Bengals replaced longtime punter Kevin Huber with Drue Chrisman after nine games. Trent Taylor is a solid punt returner.
Ravens intangibles vs. Bengals intangibles
The Bengals are the hottest team in the league and passed the Ravens in the race for an AFC North title. They’re also coming off a traumatic experience, having watched in solidarity with the Buffalo Bills as safety Damar Hamlin fought for his life Monday night. It would be foolish to attempt a guess at how this might or might not affect them.
The Ravens, meanwhile, confronted all their familiar demons in losing to the Steelers, playing their worst offense and defense in the fourth quarter. They managed to clinch a playoff spot without Jackson but know they’re not scoring enough or defending well enough in clutch spots to beat the league’s top teams. Harbaugh said they will probably play their starters against the Bengals as they hope to vault the Los Angeles Chargers for the AFC’s No. 5 seed.
The Bengals are rolling into another postseason while the Ravens have struggled to find any offensive spark without Lamar Jackson at quarterback. We don’t know if both teams will play their starters throughout, but we do know the Bengals have been superior in the second half of the season. Bengals 27, Ravens 17