NFL Preview - Cincinnati (3-1) at Baltimore (3-1)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Though there were certain to be battles for AFC North supremacy during the 2009 season, it stood to reason that most or all of those tests would include the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
But in yet another example of the nebulous nature of preseason prognostications, the team that emerges on top of Sunday's matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium will be alone in first place atop a division that most had going to the Black and Gold.
In truth, Pittsburgh is still highly likely to factor in the hunt for the division title going forward. The Steelers enter Week 5 at a disappointing 2-2 following a first four weeks played largely without star safety Troy Polamalu, but a trip to meet bottom-feeding Detroit on Sunday should keep them just one notch behind whoever wins the Ravens/Bengals game.
That said, both Baltimore and Cincinnati will place great importance on their ability to stay ahead of the posse on Sunday.
The Ravens lost their grip on sole possession of first place in the division last week, when they went to New England and lost a 27-21 nail-biter.
After coming into Week 4 with the second-ranked offensive attack in the NFL, Baltimore and quarterback Joe Flacco (27-of-47, 264 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) managed just two scoring drives against the Patriots, as New England kept the big plays to a minimum and frustrated Baltimore's receivers for much of the second half. Pressure on the blossoming Flacco was critical to the Pats' success, and dropped passes, including one by Mark Clayton inside the 10-yard line that ended the Ravens' attempt at a game-winning drive in the closing seconds, were emblematic of the team's day.
Meanwhile, New England quarterback Tom Brady completed 21-of-32 passes for 258 yards with touchdowns via both the air and the ground. Nine different New England players caught passes in the triumph, and the Ravens were also stung by a pair of questionable roughing-the-passer penalties that extended touchdown drives for the Patriots.
Brady and the New England attack complemented its defense by holding the football for nearly 35 minutes.
The Bengals had a happier result in Week 4, although things were far from easy for Marvin Lewis' team.
Down 20-14 to the winless Cleveland Browns with under seven minutes in the fourth quarter, Carson Palmer led Cincinnati on a 10-play, 70-yard drive culminating with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Chad Ochocinco with 1:55 to play in the fourth. But instead of going ahead with the point-after, Shayne Graham's kick was blocked, sending the game to an overtime session that nearly resulted in Cincinnati's second tie game in as many seasons.
But a 4th-and-11 scramble for a first-down from Palmer in the final minute kept the Bengals' final scoring drive attempt alive, and Graham redeemed himself with a 31-yard game-winning field goal to lift Cincinnati to a surprising 3-1 mark.
A win in Baltimore on Sunday will help the Bengals match their entire win total from the 2008 season, when they started out 0-8 en route to a 4-11-1 finish.
Baltimore leads the all-time series with Cincinnati, 15-11, including a home- and-home sweep last year. The Ravens earned a 17-10 home victory over the Bengals when the teams met in Week 1, and came away from Paul Brown Stadium with a 34-3 decision in Week 13. Prior to 2008, the Ravens were just 1-6 in their previous seven meetings against the Bengals, including home losses to Cincinnati in 2004, 2005, and 2007.
Lewis is 7-5 against the Ravens, the team for which he served as defensive coordinator from 1996 through 2001. Baltimore's John Harbaugh is 2-0 against both Lewis and the Bengals as a head coach.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Cincinnati has managed its 3-1 start despite some inconsistency from an offense that ranks a middling 21st in NFL total offense (318.5 yards per game). Despite the healthy return of Palmer (845 passing yards, 6 TD, 5 INT) and a renewed effort from Ochocinco (17 receptions, 3 TD), the Bengals enter Week 5 ranked just 22nd in passing offense (195.8 yards per game), with the young state of an offensive line that has allowed nine sacks through four weeks ranking as the group's biggest Achilles heel at this point. Ochocinco and blossoming second- year-pro Andre Caldwell (16 receptions, 1 TD) have done a nice job for Cincinnati, but Chris Henry (5 receptions, 1 TD) and Laveranues Coles (10 receptions, 1 TD) have made less of an impact. The running game has been better, largely via the efforts of Cedric Benson (367 rushing yards, 2 TD), but Benson is considered questionable for Sunday with a hip problem. Bernard Scott (42 rushing yards) and Brian Leonard (11 receptions) would have to carry the load if Benson is unavailable.
Though they didn't come up with the win and were plagued by the aforementioned penalties, the Ravens' performance against Brady was the best job of pressuring the quarterback Baltimore has done yet this season. Greg Mattison's unit sacked Brady three times, including a sack-fumble by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (20 tackles, 2.5 sacks) that gave the team six points when defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (5 tackles) hopped on the football in the end zone in the third quarter. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (14 tackles, 3 sacks) and end Trevor Pryce (8 tackles, 3 sacks) also had sacks in the game, though a secondary led by safety Ed Reed (13 tackles, 1 INT) and cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth (9 tackles, 1 INT) and Fabian Washington (13 tackles) continued to come up short in the big-play department. The Ravens enter Week 5 ranked No. 1 in the league in run defense (59.5 yards per game) and yards allowed per carry, thanks in large part to middle linebacker Ray Lewis (35 tackles) and the tackle tandem of Haloti Ngata (10 tackles) and Kelly Gregg (15 tackles). Lewis had 14 tackles against the Patriots, who mustered just 85 ground yards on 30 carries (2.8 per rush) for the day.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
The Ravens dropped from second to third in the league in total offense following their loss to the Patriots, but are averaging less than a yard fewer (413.5 yards per game) than the NFL-co-leading Saints and Colts in that category. Baltimore has shown tremendous balance through its first four outings, with Flacco (1103 passing yards, 8 TD, 3 INT) throwing the ball downfield frequently and running backs Ray Rice (295 rushing yards, 1 TD, 16 receptions) and Willis McGahee (201 rushing yards, 7 receptions, 7 TD) keeping defenses honest with their rushing exploits. Flacco's favorite targets have been the wideout triumvirate of Derrick Mason (19 receptions, 2 TD), Mark Clayton (14 receptions, 1 TD), and Kelley Washington (16 receptions, 1 TD), along with tight end Todd Heap (14 receptions, 2 TD). Mason was high-man with seven catches for 88 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots, though New England effectively shut him down for most of the second half. Rice had a strong showing with 152 total yards (103 rushing, 49 receiving) on just 16 touches (11 rushes, 5 receptions) against the Pats, while McGahee extended his touchdown streak to four consecutive games by scoring on a 13-yard catch in the fourth quarter. The Ravens offensive line could have to shuffle a bit this week, as left tackle Jared Gaither (neck/shoulder) is expected to miss the contest. First-round rookie Michael Oher will likely shift from right to left tackle, with Marshal Yanda taking over at right tackle.
The Bengals' ability to slow down the Ravens' attack will be predicated largely on health. Defensive tackles Tank Johnson (foot) and Domata Peko (chest), linebackers Rey Maualuga (knee) and Rashad Jeanty (finger), and safeties Roy Williams (forearm) and Chinedum Ndukwe (hamstring) are all question marks heading into Sunday, and which players are available will likely impact the manner in which Baltimore attacks. Last week, the Bengals had some trouble via both the ground and air, allowing Cleveland backup running back Jerome Harrison (29 carries, 121 yards) and wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (8 receptions, 148 yards) to have big days. Linebackers Dhani Jones (25 tackles) and Keith Rivers (29 tackles), along with defensive tackle Pat Sims (10 tackles), will be among those trying to slow the Baltimore running game. On the back end, cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph (14 tackles, 1 INT) and Leon Hall (15 tackles) will have life easier if the pass rush, led by ends Antwan Odom (17 tackles) and Robert Geathers (14 tackles, 0.5 sacks), can pressure Flacco. Odom recorded his eighth sack of the year last week, tied with the Broncos' Elvis Dumervil for the most in the league entering Week 5. Cincinnati is 17th in NFL total defense (345.2 yards per game) as it heads to Baltimore.
The Bengals have begun to get the attention of fantasy owners, though historically, matchups against the tough Baltimore defense have not been a boon for offensive players of any stripe. Benson's injury questions and the nature of the Ravens' No. 1-ranked run defense should keep him out of lineups on Sunday, and Palmer is also a risky start. Ochocinco is a decent play, although despite his two touchdowns last week, remember that he had just three catches for 24 yards on the day. Kicker Shayne Graham is a solid play.
Anyone who took a late-round flier on McGahee has been handsomely rewarded this season, as the backup running back has found the end zone in each of the first four weeks. At some point, that streak is going to end, but McGahee is clearly worth using thanks to the touches he's getting in the red-zone. Rice has made the most of his touches as well, and remains a solid play. Flacco wasn't great against New England, but the fact that he put the ball in the air 47 times keeps him as a must-start. Mason has been a consistent producer as well, and Clayton and Heap are worth considering depending on who you might have on a bye week. The Ravens defense hasn't been a consistent point-producer, but figures to make some plays against the Bengals.
The Bengals have been a nice story this season, and are due some credit for winning close games in each of the past three weeks, but this is not a matchup that would seem to suit them very well. The Cincinnati o-line remains something of a weakness, and the Ravens' pressure figures to cause some problems for the less-than-mobile Palmer. On the other side of the ball, the Bengals had trouble stopping running back Jerome Harrison, as well as the Derek Anderson-to-Mohamed Massaquoi connection...how are they going to consistently stop the Ravens' stable of running backs, or Flacco and his bevy of targets? In the end, while the Bengals may indeed remain in the playoff race, they're simply not ready at this point to win a difficult road game against a Baltimore team that looks like the real deal.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Bengals 13
10/08 13:14:38 ET