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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (6-3) at Baltimore (3-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Despite a loss last time out, the Cincinnati Bengals still have a solid hold over first place in the AFC North with a chance to pad that lead over the next two weeks.
Things are getting more dire for the Baltimore Ravens, in danger of posting their longest losing streak in six years.
The Bengals aim to rebound on Sunday in Baltimore with their first road win of the season, one that would hand the Ravens their fourth setback in a row.
Cincinnati is leading the division with a 6-3 record, two games ahead of Cleveland and another half-game up on 3-5 Baltimore. The Bengals have a chance to put themselves in a very good spot ahead of their bye as they host the Browns on Nov. 17 after this divisional clash.
Back-to-back wins would put the Bengals on an excellent pace to lock up their first division title since 2009, but they first have to rebound from a disappointing 22-20 overtime setback to the Miami Dolphins last Thursday.
The Bengals lost it in strange fashion after rallying from a 14-point deficit midway through the third quarter to grab a 20-17 lead with 1:24 left in the fourth quarter on Mike Nugent's 54-yard field goal.
However, the Dolphins forced overtime on Caleb Sturgis' 44-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining in regulation and picked up the victory on Cameron Wake's sack of Andy Dalton in the end zone for a game-ending safety with 6:38 on the clock.
"We really fought our butts back into the game in the second half," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "We just weren't able to finish it out and reap the reward of it."
Running back Giovani Bernard ran for a pair of touchdowns in the second half, but the safety capped a forgettable outing for Dalton, who threw for 338 yards but was sacked five times and picked off three times without a touchdown pass. That came just one game after he completed five touchdown passes.
One of Dalton's interceptions versus the Dolphins was returned 94 yards for a score.
"We turned the ball over and didn't make enough plays to win the game," said Dalton. "This is a tough one. We've been winning these games the last several weeks."
The Bengals had a four-game win streak halted, a span that featured two wins at home and a pair of road victories. Cincinnati has won all four of its games as the hosting club this season, but is 2-3 on the road.
The Ravens know something about close losses as each of their past four setbacks have come by six points or less. They lost back-to-back games against Green Bay and Pittsburgh by a combined five points ahead of a bye, then came out of the break with a 24-18 road loss to the Browns on Sunday.
Baltimore had won each of its past 11 meetings with Cleveland, but saw Browns quarterback Jason Campbell throw three touchdown passes.
Joe Flacco threw for 250 yards with two touchdown passes -- both to wide receiver Marlon Brown -- and an interception, but the ground game managed just 55 yards. Flacco had a team-high 25 of those yards.
"I know our players are good enough to win these games. There's no doubt about it. We just have to play better," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said.
That will need to happen soon as a four-game skid would be Baltimore's longest since dropping nine in a row during the 2007 season.
"It's going to be a challenge, we're 3-5," Harbaugh said of making the playoffs. "The math says it's going to be a challenge. We've got our work cut out for us. We are going to have to win some games. We have to start winning close games."
The Ravens lost a close meeting with the Bengals in Cincinnati last December 30, but routed their rivals as the hosting club 44-13 to kick off the 2012 campaign.
All told, the Ravens lead the all-time series 19-15, winning 12 of 17 at home.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Bengals come into this meeting ranked fifth overall in total defense, yielding 325.0 yards per game, but suffered a big injury versus the Dolphins when standout defensive tackle Geno Atkins sustained a torn ACL in his right knee that is season ending.
Atkins had six sacks and 20 tackles this season and led all interior lineman with 12 1/2 sacks a season ago. He becomes the eighth player to land on injured reserve this year for the Bengals and all eight of come on the defensive side of the ball, including defensive end Robert Geathers and cornerback Leon Hall.
"It sucks because he's one of the best. He is a big part of our defense," said Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko of Atkins. "He is a hell of a player. You never want to see anybody go down."
Brandon Thompson, a 325-pound second-year player out of Clemson, is set to start in Atkins' place and has 16 tackles with 1 1/2 sacks in nine games this season.
The Ravens will try to exploit the loss of Atkins and possibly get their ground game going. Baltimore is averaging just 71.6 yards per game on the ground, ranking 29th in the NFL, and both Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. Rice tops Baltimore with 259 yards on 97 carries, but does rank second on the club with 27 catches.
Not helping is the fact that Flacco has been sacked 25 times and has nine interceptions to 10 touchdown passes.
Harbaugh cited other teams lining up to stop the run as the issue his club has to overcome.
"We've got to get them out of that run defense. That's our job. And to do that, we've got to be good and precise in the pass game," said the Ravens coach. "We've got to open up that coverage a little bit and force them to back off. We did that at times and other times we didn't."
The Ravens' 10th-ranked defense won't be able to game plan too much against Bernard, who leads all rookies with 628 yards from scrimmage, thanks to Bengals wideout A.J. Green, one of top receivers in the game.
Green made 11 catches for 128 yards versus the Dolphins, tying Carl Pickens' 1994 club record with his fourth straight 100-yard receiving game. Green leads the NFL with 862 receiving yards and is third with an average of 95.8 yards per game.
Ravens wideout Torrey Smith ranks fourth in the AFC with an average of 88.4 yards per game.
Dalton will try to bounce back from his performance versus the Dolphins in which he posted a season-low 55.4 passer rating. He had logged a rating of 116.8 over the four-game winning streak and had 11 touchdown passes over his previous three games before Thursday's loss.
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs will try to keep Dalton uncomfortable in the pocket and has a sack in all but one of his eight games this season. He is tied for fifth in the league with nine sacks to go along with 60 tackles.
This will be a test for Dalton if he wants to prove he can be a quarterback who can take his club to the next level. A bounce-back effort in a tough road game would certainly add to the confidence level.
Dalton, though, has a passer rating of 67.8 in his career versus the Ravens, throwing for 904 yards with two touchdowns to four interceptions.
Flacco, meanwhile, is 4-1 at home in his career versus the Bengals and is 200 yards shy of 20,000 passing for his career.
Baltimore is also 8-2 in its past 10 at home versus fellow AFC North residents, but something just isn't clicking for the Ravens right now and last weekend's loss to the Browns proves that trends don't always decide games.
The Bengals may be hurting on the defensive side of things, but extra rest and more confidence should lead to a victory this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 23, Ravens 17
11/07 14:12:35 ET