The Bengals Enter the Playoffs on a Roll (Again)

Fresh off a regular season that ties for the franchise’s best record ever, Cincinnati looks to vanquish the Ravens two weeks in a row. If only we weren’t playing on Sunday night!
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Let’s just go ahead and say it: I’m hardly confident about Sunday’s playoff matchup with Baltimore. You may well ask why, considering that Cincinnati has won eight straight games, including last Sunday’s 27-16 victory over this very same opponent.

The Bengals finished the regular season 12-4, matching the best record in franchise history (set in 1988 and 2015), which might have been 13 but for the Damar Hamlin Incident. (And let’s stop right here for a second to marvel and rejoice at the speed and seeming comprehensiveness of Hamlin’s recovery. Great job, medicos!) We’re smack dab in the middle of the greatest sustained run of success in the entirety of Bengalsdom. And yet, for all of that, I’m worried.

First, of course, is the scheduling. The NFL put the Bengals-Ravens game on Sunday night, a historical dead zone for Cincinnati. The Stripes are 1-19 in that spot over the last 20 appearances on Sunday Night Football, including a loss to the Ravens earlier this season. Mike Tirico is a fond presence thanks to his call of last year’s drought-breaking game against the Raiders, but old pal Cris Collinsworth is a friggin’ jinx. It will truly be a new dey in Cincinnati if the Bengals can overcome CC being in the house at Paycor Stadium.

Part of my anguish is the recent record of these all-AFC-North playoff clashes. The road underdog has won the last four times they’ve met a divisional foe, including (ack!) the 2005 and 2015 games we don’t need to talk about any further. Cleveland won in Pittsburgh in 2020, and the Ravens won at Heinz Field in 2014; before that, the home team won the first three times AFCN teams met since the division was invented in 2002.

I’m also seeing some similarities to the 2009 playoffs. In the final game of that season, the Bengals played the Jets in New York. “Played” is a relative term, as the JV team started and the Jets needed the game to make the postseason. Accordingly, Cincinnati was obliterated that night. Gang Green turned around and defeated the Bengals the following weekend in the wild-card game as well.

Whether the Ravens took any confidence and bluster from Sunday’s game into this week is open to debate. Surely they had to like the way they moved the ball with third-string QB Anthony Brown. The Ravens piled up 386 yards on offense, though in true Baltimore fashion it translated into just a single touchdown. Overall they played rough and chippy, even beyond the standard Bengals-Ravens level of extracurricular violence. Cincinnati generally doesn’t complain about that kind of thing, but the word in the locker room was unanimous—the Bengals thought Baltimore played dirty. If nothing else, Ravens coaches are no doubt pushing the idea that their team is under the Bengals’ skin.

In the last six halves of officially recognized football, the Bengals lost three of them by an aggregate score of 44-6. They won the other three halves by an amazing 80-13, of course, which is why they won all three of those games, two rather comfortably. Some of that can be attributed to fluky circumstances (the New England game in particular), but it’s worth noting that the team has struggled to play two consistent halves of late.

Now admittedly my confidence level has improved somewhat with the increasing likeliness that Lamar Jackson will be forced to miss the game with the same knee injury that was supposedly a “one-to-three-week” nick when it first occurred. The Vegas line has moved as well, from Cincinnati -5.5 immediately after Sunday’s game to 8 points after news that Jackson is in an “uphill struggle” (per Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network) to play. I personally fear he will try the Willis Reed approach and make a surprise appearance, but maybe I’m alone in that.

Without Jackson, the Ravens’ offense frequently looks like it’s playing “uphill,” Sunday’s massive yardage output notwithstanding. In the six games since Jackson went out (counting the one vs. Denver where he was hurt), the Ravens have scored 75 points, never topping 17 in a single contest. His main backup, Tyler Huntley, hasn’t done much in his stead, with -21 DYAR in his action (compare that to another backup, Brock Purdy in San Francisco, who has 397 DYAR).

We saw Anthony Brown’s limitations on Sunday, though for a rookie in his first-ever start he did what QBs in that spot historically have done against the Bengals. Whichever QB the Ravens use in the playoff game, he will have runner J.K. Dobbins, superb tight end Mark Andrews, and stalwart guard Kevin Zeitler in the lineup, all of whom sat out the regular season finale.

So Cincinnati’s D vs. Baltimore’s O is likely to be at least a bit of an advantage for the Stripes. Can the Bengals score enough to follow up on that? Perhaps not a ton can be taken from Sunday’s game, where Joe Burrow was unusually inaccurate (by his standards), Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins (who was banged up in the game) dropped sure touchdown passes, and the offense overall was coated in vanilla—unsurprising given that Cincinnati’s coaching staff wasn’t about to reveal too much once they built a comfortable lead.

Even throwing that out, there are concerns, chiefly up front. Alex Cappa’s injury in the Ravens game was a body blow. Few players in recent Bengals O-line play have brought the consistency and toughness he has all year. Paired with the loss of La’el Collins, Cincinnati’s right side of the line now is back to 2021 levels, with Hakeem Adeniji and Max Scharping entrusted to keep Burrow upright and open holes for Joe Mixon.

The running game overall is back on a downward slope of the rollercoaster it’s ridden all season. The rough start was supplanted by an outstanding middle, but the Bengals closed poorly (and finishing fourth overall in rushing DVOA). The balance out of shotgun sets was critical to Cincinnati’s explosive attack. Few teams are as suited to make the Bengals nervous as Baltimore, led by midseason theft Roquan Smith.

Burrow and the receivers can beat the Ravens without running the ball (they did Sunday with just 55 yards rushing), but it makes the margin for error that much narrower. Baltimore’s defense made Cincinnati work hard for what they got, and that was without corners Marcus Peters and Brandon Stephens, who fell ill and was forced into a stay in an area hospital; Queen City ERs have been busy with pro football players lately. It will be critical for Burrow (who had just 432 yards and two TDs vs Baltimore this year after scorching them for 941/7 in 2021) to avoid turning the ball over, more so than usual. Baltimore can’t outscore Cincinnati unless we give them plenty of help with short fields or—God forbid—defensive scores.

As for special teams, the Ravens as ever are strong in this department (third by DVOA), while Cincinnati has improved to 18th. We know Justin Tucker will make his kicks; I’m pretty sure Evan McPherson will make his, but I’m not as 100 percent positive about that like I was at this time a year ago.

At the end of the day, the playoffs are a fresh season for everyone. Winning requires teams that treat each game as its own entity, disregarding what came before or what may come after. And who lives in the moment better than Joe Burrow?

It is Joey B’s presence that mitigates any misgivings that I, as a naturally paranoid and pessimistic fan, have going in to the game. They have to play us!

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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