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NFL Preview - Baltimore (1-0) at Cincinnati (0-1)



By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - The Baltimore Ravens displayed plenty of motivation in their first game of the 2010 campaign. With the opportunity to avenge a pair of bitter losses to a division rival from the previous year now at hand, head coach John Harbaugh likely won't have to worry about an emotional letdown when his team marches into Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday for an important early- season showdown with the defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals.

In one of the most anticipated and ballyhooed matchups on the Week 1 docket, Baltimore got its quest for a third consecutive postseason trip off to a desired start by delivering a hard-fought 10-9 road victory over the highly- touted New York Jets this past Monday. In a contest that featured an abundance of talking on both sides, it was the Ravens' defense that made the loudest statement by rendering an impotent Jets' attack to 176 total yards and a paltry six first downs.

Baltimore's offense wasn't exactly operating at maximum efficiency either, committing three early turnovers and squandering a few scoring opportunities, but did get excellent production from newcomer Anquan Boldin in the standout wide receiver's Ravens debut. The ex-Arizona Cardinal, Baltimore's marquee acquisition during the offseason, hauled in seven passes from quarterback Joe Flacco for a combined 110 yards.

Boldin's addition was designed to add playmakers to an offense that was stymied by the Bengals in a pair of pivotal 2009 meetings, with those two wins looming large in the team's surprising run to the AFC North title. Cincinnati finished last season with a 10-6 record, one game better than both the Ravens and Pittsburgh in the final standings, and swept both opponents while achieving a perfect 6-0 mark in divisional play.

The Bengals hardly resembled a playoff team in their 2010 lid-lifter, however, sleepwalking through the entire first half of an eventual 38-24 setback at New England. The prepared Patriots scored on three of their first four possessions in building a quick 17-0 lead, then put up two more touchdowns on an interception and kick return to go up by an insurmountable 31-3 margin less than a minute into the second half.

Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer did put up 345 passing yards and two scores, though most of that total occurred with the outcome already in hand, while flashy wideout Chad Ochocinco racked up 159 receiving yards and a touchdown on 12 grabs.

While Ochocinco and counterpart and new teammate Terrell Owens are usually the ones seizing the spotlight, the presence of a former Bengal will provide another intriguing subplot to Sunday's tilt. Ravens wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Ochocinco's running mate in Cincinnati for seven years, will be returning to Paul Brown Stadium for the first time since leaving the team as a free agent following the 2008 season.

Houshmandzadeh, who set a Bengals season record with 112 receptions in 2007, signed with the Ravens on September 6 after being released by Seattle during the preseason roster cutdown and will serve as his new club's third receiver on Sunday.

SERIES HISTORY

Baltimore leads the all-time series with Cincinnati, 15-13, but as previously mentioned, suffered a home-and-home sweep at the hands of the Bengals last season. The Ravens were 17-14 home losers when the teams met in Week 5, then dropped a 17-7 decision at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 9. The Ravens swept the 2008 home-and-home, including a 34-3 rout in Cincinnati.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is 9-5 against the Ravens, the team for which he served as defensive coordinator from 1996 through 2001. Harbaugh is 2-2 against both Lewis and the Bengals as a head coach.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

The Jets' rugged rush defense forced Baltimore to deviate from its preferred game plan of pounding the football in the opener, with dangerous running back Ray Rice limited to a harmless 43 yards on 21 carries, but Flacco was able to do some damage through the air. The strong-armed signal-caller hit on 20-of-38 throws for 248 yards and an interception, with Boldin (7 receptions, 110 yards) and tight end Todd Heap (6 receptions, 72 yards) his two primary targets. Both were consistently able to exploit single-coverage mismatches during the game, one reason why the Ravens converted an impressive 11-of-19 third-down attempts. The improved receiving corps possesses two other accomplished veterans in Houshmandzadeh (1 reception, 27 yards) and 36-year- old Derrick Mason (2 receptions, 21 yards), and don't forget that Rice (2 receptions, 19 yards) topped all NFL backs in catches (78) and receiving yards (78) a year ago. Baltimore averaged better than 137 rushing yards per game (5th overall) last season, but managed just 49 against the Jets.

While the Ravens were successfully able to control the ball in Monday's victory, the Cincinnati defense had a most difficult time getting off the field in the New England loss. The Patriots went 9-of-13 on third-down tries for the game and piled up a whopping 248 yards in the first half, unacceptable numbers against a Bengals stop unit that was returning all of its regulars from a group that surrendered the fourth-fewest yards in the league in 2009. Cincinnati got next to no pressure on Pats quarterback Tom Brady, and Flacco's fully capable of shredding the secondary as well unless players such as ends Antwan Odom (2 tackles) and Robert Geathers (2 tackles) step up and can bring the heat come Sunday. The defense does contain two very good cornerbacks in Leon Hall (2 tackles, 1 PD) and Johnathan Joseph (6 tackles), a duo that produced 12 interceptions last season, while a front seven headed up by young linebackers Rey Maualuga (4 tackles) and Keith Rivers (10 tackles, 1 PD) held Rice under 70 rushing yards in both 2009 meetings with Baltimore. Stopping the run was an issue down the stretch of last season, though, as the Bengals yielded over 150 yards per game on the ground over the final five games (including playoffs).

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL

Cincinnati is at its best when the offense is able to churn out chunks of yards behind workhorse running back Cedric Benson, as evidenced by the team's 6-0 record when the powerful sixth-year pro eclipsed the 100-yard mark in a game last season. Benson had trouble getting untracked against the Patriots, however, mustering a pedestrian 43 yards on 15 attempts, and the running game was all but abandoned when the Bengals got behind big. They'll be trying to achieve greater balance on Sunday, with Benson and speedy third-down specialist Bernard Scott (35 rushing yards, 3 receptions) doing the work on the ground and Palmer (345 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) spreading the ball around to a cast of pass-catchers that's been bolstered by the over-the-summer signing of Owens (7 receptions, 53 yards) and the selections of a pair of promising rookies -- slot receiver Jordan Shipley (5 receptions, 82 yards) and tight end Jermaine Gresham (6 receptions, 1 TD) -- in April's draft. The two youngsters teamed up for 11 catches and 107 yards in their regular-season debuts. Ochocinco (159 receiving yards, 1 TD) seemed to benefit from the added weapons, as the six-time Pro Bowler's 12 receptions matched a career high.

Benson went over 100 yards in each of Cincinnati's two wins over the Ravens last year, no small feat on a defense that ranked fifth against the run (93.3 ypg) in 2009. Tackles Haloti Ngata (4 tackles, 1 sack) and Kelly Gregg (2 tackles) are extremely effective interior pluggers who create space for an outstanding linebacking crew headed by perennial All-Pro and esteemed leader Ray Lewis (4 tackles). Baltimore can also create pressure on the edge with the outside combo of three-time Pro Bowl honoree Terrell Suggs (6 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and the often-overlooked Jarret Johnson (2 tackles, 0.5 sacks), while a secondary that was a question mark entering the season played lights-out on Monday even with the absence of injured free safety Ed Reed. With cornerbacks Chris Carr (3 tackles) and Fabian Washington (1 tackle) providing tight coverage, the Jets amassed an anemic 60 net passing yards and didn't have a completion longer than 13 yards in the opener. Cincinnati should pose a greater challenge, and the Ravens will need all hands on deck to deal with the Bengals' depth at receiver. Fortunately, second-year corner Lardarius Webb (35 tackles, 1 sack in '09) appears ready to go after being held out of Week 1 to allow more time to recover from an ACL tear suffered last December.

FANTASY FOCUS

Rice and Benson were elite fantasy backs last season that failed to meet expectations in their 2010 debuts, but both have excellent track records that suggest neither will be down for long. Each should receive plenty of touches on Sunday, and a spot in your lineup as well. There's more risk involved at the quarterback position, though Flacco could be set up for a good day against a Cincinnati defense that was submissive against the pass last week and certainly merits consideration. Don't read too much into Palmer's 345-yard effort in the opener, as the Bengals were in catch-up mode the entire second half and he'll be hard-pressed to duplicate those numbers on Baltimore's stingy D. Even with Owens now on board, last week proved Ochocinco's still the go-go guy for Palmer and Cincy's best fantasy option at receiver, while Boldin solidified his must-start status with his strong debut. Heap's a solid play at tight end as well, and Mason's production should improve this week after being locked down by Jets superstar Darrelle Revis on Monday. Owens still offers some upside as a No. 3 receiver or flex choice, but Gresham owners still need to be patient and expect their share of ups and downs from the talented rookie. Keep on eye on Bengals kicker Mike Nugent, who drilled a 54-yard field goal in last Sunday's loss.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

This is a very important test for the Bengals, who can ill afford to fall two games behind Baltimore in the division standings even at this early stage. With that significance in mind, expect a considerably more focused effort from the home team come Sunday. The question is, will that be enough to knock off a Ravens team that hasn't shown many weaknesses in the early going and will be seeking payback for last year's two losses? Baltimore showed last week it can win even when its trademark running game isn't clicking, and there should be opportunities for Flacco and the receivers to take advantage of against a suddenly-suspect Cincinnati defense that lacked any semblance of a pass rush in its Week 1 loss. The Bengals won both 2009 meetings behind productive days from Benson, but may find the running lanes tougher to navigate this time around against a determined Baltimore squad that's simply playing better football right now.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Bengals 16

09/16 12:24:16 ET

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