When the Baltimore Ravens host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday (1:00 p.m. ET, CBS), Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow headline a matchup of the top two teams in the AFC North. But the battle for first place in recent years will be fought by teams competing at different levels.
Since Zac Taylor took over as coach of the Bengals in 2019, Baltimore Cincinnati has scored 137-36. That’s a difference of 101 points — an average victory margin of 25.2 points for the Ravens — over the past four games.
But the Ravens (5-1) are not thinking about the past when they face a Bengals (4-2) team that has already matched last season’s win tally.
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“The entire team is one of the best teams in the National Football League right now,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “There’s no doubt about it – just watch them play. They’ve done a great job across the board. In terms of how they play this year, that’s all we’re looking at. There’s no comparison to anything else.”
Features of Sunday’s meeting:
The two best passers-by in the AFC North. Jackson is number 8 in the NFL with 1,686 passing yards and Burrow 10th with 1,540.
The highest scoring offenses in the division. The Ravens are seventh in the league with 28.3 points per game and the Bengals 11th with 24.7 points.
The stingiest defenses in the division. Cincinnati is fifth in the NFL with 18.5 points per game allowed and Baltimore seventh with 20.5 points.
“We have our hands full,” Harbaugh said. “Whoever wins will lead the division halfway through the season. So we understand that.”
Are the Bengals ready to take the next step and beat the team with the best record in the AFC? Or will Jackson and Co. keep rolling and get their sixth straight win? ESPN’s Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Bengals reporter Ben Baby explain.
Hensley: Ben, we’ve seen the Ravens dominate the Bengals in 2019 and 2020. Do you feel like Sunday’s game will be different?
Baby: It could be. This is the Bengals’ best team in Taylor’s three seasons — and it doesn’t even come close. Cincinnati has spent the last two drafts and offseasons taking the necessary steps for a quick rebuild. The Bengals have drafted key skill players, including Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, and added big pieces in free agency, such as defensive tackle DJ Reader and defensive end Trey Hendrickson.
The Bengals (4-2) undoubtedly did most of their damage against some inferior opponents. But Cincinnati was one of those teams last season.
The Bengals have ramped up their defense to be much better against the run – think of Jackson’s peak TD in 2019, where he put a few guys in the spin cycle. And that could make this weekend’s game a closer affair.
Could Ravens-Bengals be the biggest rivalry in the AFC North as the Bengals show a marked improvement?
Hensley: People would be surprised if Ravens-Bengals became the new Ravens-Steelers. The Cleveland Browns were expected to be Baltimore’s main league for the division title. But this is a quarterback-driven league, and the Ravens and Bengals clearly have the best quarterbacks in the division. As long as the Bengals can build a supporting cast around Burrow like the Ravens did with Jackson, these teams can compete for the top spot for the next decade.
While these Ravens-Bengals games weren’t close, they have had some memorable moments. There was the Jackson spin in 2019. There was also the Bengals kicking a late field goal in Baltimore last season to avoid a shutout, which drew the ire of Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. All this series needs is to stake something meaningful, which can start on Sunday.
Ben, the Ravens were a .500 team before Jackson became the starter midway through the 2018 season. He led them to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. How has Burrow changed attitudes and culture in Cincinnati?
Baby: Burrow transformed everything about Cincinnati and was the center of the rebuilding process. Everything is seemingly aligned with the best overall design pick of 2020.
Burrow’s aggressiveness was reflected in the coaching staff, who are not afraid to rely on analysis and take risks in unorthodox situations. Cincinnati has also built its attack around Burrow, causing significant ripple effects.
After Burrow suffered his season-end knee injury in 2020, the Bengals made some modest but useful upgrades on the offensive line. More importantly, they drafted Chase, Burrow’s former LSU teammate. That synergy has produced some great plays as Burrow has shown confidence in Chase that feels unique.
What makes this Bengals-Ravens game fascinating is that Cincinnati appears to be on the cusp of joining Baltimore as one of the top teams in a competitive AFC North. But which franchise is better situated for future success? Jamison, I have a hunch what your answer is — and it’s not wrong.
Hensley: It’s hard to bet against a team with Jackson, who is 35-8 as a starter. Even with 16 players on reserve injured, the Ravens equaled their best start in franchise history. Baltimore has a solid foundation going forward, with cornerback Marlon Humphrey and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley for overtime. The Ravens are also consistently among the best in design under CEO Eric DeCosta.
But the challenge comes when Jackson no longer has his rookie contract. The Ravens won one playoff game after Joe Flacco became one of the highest paid players in the NFL. The trouble is, huge quarterback contracts take up a big chunk of the salary cap. The difference with Jackson is that you don’t have to surround him with big name free agents to be a champion candidate. Jackson elevates the talent around him for being such a focus of the defense. Jackson puts the “V” in MVP. The Ravens are also bracing for Jackson’s expensive overtime by collecting draft picks. Baltimore has 10 rosters in the 2022 draft.
Jackson is 5-0 against the Bengals and has done a lot of damage against that Cincinnati defense. If the Bengalis want to turn this into a rivalry, they will have to find some answers for him. How do you think the Bengals will try to slow down Jackson?
Baby: There are a few options — use the attack to keep Baltimore off the field or find a way to close the middle of the field and hold Jackson down. It probably takes a combination of both to slow down Jackson, and even that is asking a lot. He currently plays as an MVP candidate.
And that’s why, if we have to pick which franchise is better equipped to rule the AFC North forward, it has to be Baltimore. Burrow could continue to develop into a very good, if not great, quarterback. But Jackson plays at that level and somehow gets better and better.
The other, non-QB factor also goes back to why the Bengals lined up Burrow. They weren’t just looking for a long-term quarterback. Cincinnati needed a franchise facelift. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in over 30 years, and outside of the strong streak between 2011 and 2015, they struggled to reach the postseason.
Cincinnati has so much to prove. The Bengals need to show that they can continue to adapt and have the ability to really build a franchise capable of doing what Baltimore and Pittsburgh have accomplished over the decades.
That is what makes this game and this season so important. Cincinnati finally has the team to compete for a division title and become a good franchise. What the Bengals look like against Baltimore will show us what the battle for the AFC North could look like in the coming years.
Jamison, how do you see playing on Sunday?
Hensley: It’s hard to predict that the Bengals will slow Jackson down until they actually do it. Jackson has beaten Cincinnati with his arm, throwing eight touchdown passes in five games. He beat the Bengals with his legs and rushed 436 yards.
The Ravens defense has also had the Bengals’ number. Baltimore has gone 10 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown to Cincinnati. The Bengals scored two field goals in two games against the Ravens last year. The Ravens strengthen their hold on top of the division with a 34-24 win.
Ben, what’s your prediction for this one?
Baby: This will be Burrow’s second game against Martindale, who praised Bengal’s offensive coordinator Brian Callahan earlier in the week as he wondered how Wink is not a head coach given the success of that defense.
This game is all about Burrow vs. wink. The Ravens put in 82.0 rushing yards per game, the third lowest total in the NFL. Teams have resorted to passing the ball to beat Baltimore.
Interestingly enough, the Bengals defense is actually statistically better than Baltimore’s defense. However, this will be the biggest test for Cincinnati on both sides of the ball. And Baltimore gets the nod for me. Raven 24, Bengal 13.
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