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NFL Preview - Baltimore (4-3) at Cincinnati (5-2)



By Tony Moss, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - When they left town as 17-14 winners on Oct. 11, the Cincinnati Bengals certainly had the attention of a stunned Baltimore Ravens squad.

Should Cincinnati complete a home-and-home sweep of John Harbaugh's team at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, Baltimore might have to turn its attention to something other than winning the AFC North title.

A Week 9 win for the Bengals (5-2) would hand Marvin Lewis' club the all- important head-to-head tie-breaker against one of its main division competitors, not to mention a two-game lead over Baltimore (4-4) in the AFC North. Cincinnati already holds the tie-breaker over the similarly 5-2 Steelers thanks to a head-to-head win over Pittsburgh on Sept. 27, and will be attempting to complete a sweep of the defending Super Bowl champs next Sunday at Heinz Field.

Past their two-game gauntlet of Ravens and Steelers is a light stretch against the Raiders (2-6), Browns (1-7), and Lions (1-7), a period in which it will be difficult for Baltimore, Pittsburgh, or anyone else to gain much ground on the Bengals.

Not that Cincinnati needs a host of cupcakes in order to pad its record, judging by the team's strength thus far in the season's first half. Just prior to its Week 8 bye, the Bengals flexed their muscles with a 45-10 home beat-down of the Chicago Bears, helping to wipe away the residue of a troubling loss to Houston in the Queen City the week before.

The job of making the Bengals' three-game homestand a losing one will fall to the Ravens, who can also pull even with Cincinnati (and potentially Pittsburgh, which plays at 6-1 Denver on Monday Night) with a victory in Week 9.

Baltimore rides some momentum into its date with the Bengals, having handed the Broncos their first loss in resounding 30-7 fashion last week. The victory ended a frustrating three-game losing streak for the Ravens, one that included narrow losses to the Bengals, Patriots (27-21), and Vikings (33-31).

A Ravens defense that had been criticized for its struggles, particularly in the realm of pass defense, limited Denver's usually efficient offensive group to just 200 yards on the day. Greg Mattison's defense limited Kyle Orton and the Broncos passing game to just 152 yards on 23-of-37 passing, and held Denver stars Brandon Marshall (4 receptions, 24 yards) and Knowshon Moreno (12 total touches, 35 yards) firmly in check on the day.

Meanwhile, quarterback Joe Flacco kept up his brilliant sophomore season by completing 20-of-25 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown without a turnover on the day.

Rookie kickoff returner Lardarius Webb provided the most electrifying moment of the game, setting the second-half tone by bringing back the opening kickoff of the half for a 95-yard touchdown.

SERIES HISTORY

Baltimore leads the all-time series with Cincinnati, 15-12, but as mentioned, was a 17-14 home loser when the teams met in Week 5. The Ravens swept the home- and-home last year, earning a 17-10 home victory when the teams met in Week 1, and coming away from Paul Brown Stadium with a 34-3 decision in Week 13. The latter result snapped a three-game losing streak for Baltimore in the Queen City. The Ravens haven't won back-to-back games in Cincinnati since 2000, when they polished off a three-game winning streak there.

Lewis is 8-5 against the Ravens, the team for which he served as defensive coordinator from 1996 through 2001. Baltimore's Harbaugh is 2-1 against both Lewis and the Bengals as a head coach.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

The Ravens enter Week 9 ranked seventh in the league in total offense (378.7 yards per game), though they put up their weakest offensive showing of the year in the previous meeting against Cincinnati. Baltimore had just 257 yards and 12 first downs in that loss, and Flacco (1849 passing yards, 12 TD, 5 INT) looked mostly unwilling to throw the ball downfield. Only four of the quarterback's 22 completions in that game went to wide receivers, and top WR Derrick Mason (30 receptions, 4 TD) went without a catch in the contest. If the Ravens wish to avoid the sweep, wideouts Mason, Mark Clayton (23 receptions, 2 TD), and Kelley Washington (24 receptions, 1 TD) must get involved, along with tight end Todd Heap (27 receptions, 2 TD). Baltimore running back Ray Rice (525 rushing yards, 38 receptions, 5 TD) has had an electrifying second season, and was the Ravens' offensive leader with 28 total touches for 108 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos last week. A solid Baltimore offensive line has surrendered just 12 sacks on the year, and limited a good Denver pass rush to two last Sunday.

Although a rough outing against Matt Schaub and the Houston Texans back in Week 6 proved that it is possible to move the ball on the Cincinnati defense, that 472-yard offensive performance was more the exception than the rule for a Bengals group that handled the Ravens attack and more recently coaxed the Bears' Jay Cutler into a three-interception day. The ability of the team to handle Rice will be paramount, with tackles Domata Peko (13 tackles) and Pat Sims (18 tackles) trying to set the tone up front, and linebackers Dhani Jones (46 tackles, 1 sack) and Keith Rivers (39 tackles) among those responsible for making plays behind them. Jones had a team-high seven solo tackles against the Bears last time out. The secondary that Flacco seemed so afraid to test in Week 5 features three former first-rounders, including quarterbacks Johnathan Joseph (26 tackles, 3 INT) and Leon Hall (38 tackles, 3 INT) along with strong safety Roy Williams (28 tackles). Joseph and Hall both had INTs of Flacco in the first Ravens-Bengals meeting. Williams has missed three of the last four games due to a forearm injury but is expected to play Sunday.

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL

In its previous meeting against the Ravens defense, Cincinnati did not look like an offense that was displaying much fear. In addition to Cedric Benson (720 rushing yards, 5 TD), who became the first opposing rusher since 2006 to amass over 100 yards against the Ravens, Carson Palmer (1608 passing yards, 13 TD, 7 INT) lit the Baltimore defense up for 271 yards on 18-of-31 passing, including a 73-yard bomb to Chris Henry (11 receptions, 2 TD) and a 20-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell (26 receptions, 2 TD) to provide the final margin of victory. Henry and Chad Ochocinco (39 receptions, 5 TD) both had 90+ receiving yards in the victory. Last time out, in the rout of the Bears, Palmer threw five touchdown passes, including two to Ochocinco and one each to Henry and Laveranues Coles (16 receptions, 3 TD), while Benson established career- highs for carries (37) and yards (189) against his former team. The Bengals have moved up to 13th in the league in total offense (345.9 yards per game) thanks largely to the work of an underrated line that has surrendered just 11 sacks on the year.

After injuring their stout reputation by allowing 100-yard rushing games to both Benson and Adrian Peterson in recent weeks, the Ravens recovered by doing a good job against Moreno and the Denver ground attack last Sunday. Still, a Baltimore run defense that is allowing 87.6 rushing yards per game, fourth-best in the NFL, could take a hit this week if massive defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (19 tackles, 0.5 sacks) is unable to shake off a sprained ankle suffered last week. If Ngata is out, Justin Bannan (18 tackles) would start alongside Kelly Gregg (24 tackles), with linebacker Ray Lewis (60 tackles, 1 sack) the main clean-up man behind them. Despite those question marks, the problem spot for the Ravens remains in the secondary, where cornerbacks Fabian Washington (28 tackles) and especially Domonique Foxworth (15 tackles, 1 INT) have been shaky, as has safety Dawan Landry (35 tackles, 2 INT). Pro Bowler Ed Reed (29 tackles, 2 INT), who had four tackles and recovered a Moreno fumble last week, has been the most reliable player on the back end as usual. Pass rusher Terrell Suggs (37 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is the team's most feared threat off the edge, though linebacker Jarret Johnson (24 tackles, 5 sacks) and end Trevor Pryce (12 tackles, 4 sacks) are 1-2 on the team in sacks. Baltimore is 19th in the league against the pass (226.1 yards per game) as Week 8 commences.

FANTASY FOCUS

Rice's presence in both the rushing and passing games have made him a terrific fantasy play, and since Willis McGahee has averaged just 4.3 touches and scored one TD over the past four games, any reservations about using Rice should be tempered. The Ravens' passing principles are a bit more problematic, especially given how reluctant they were to put the ball in the air against Cincinnati last time, but Flacco, Mason, and to a lesser extent Heap will probably contribute something. The Ravens defense is not what it once was, but still makes enough big plays to merit a fantasy start.

On the Cincinnati side, Benson's performance against the Ravens last time out should take any reluctance you might have in using him away, and Palmer and Ochocinco have both been reasonably reliable as well. Coles has touchdown catches in each of his last two games, but with only six grabs overall in those outings, he's risky at best. The Bengals defense is worth a look, as is kicker Shayne Graham.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

For the second straight week, the Ravens have to know how damaging a loss would be to their 2009 prospects. Thus, for a second straight week, you can expect an intensely focused effort from Harbaugh's crew. The Bengals are a good football team and have been a terrific story this year, but they still have en ever-so- slight talent disadvantage when compared with the Ravens, and the fact that Cincinnati would still be 5-3 and very much in control of its own destiny with a loss is going to ratchet down the desperation effect just a bit for Lewis' club. The Bengals will play well enough to keep this one close deep into the fourth quarter, but will make one fewer big play than Baltimore when it matters.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 23, Bengals 17

11/05 15:12:10 ET