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#ColumnNes Has Cincinnati replaced Pittsburgh for the Baltimore football rivalry gods?

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Nestor Aparicio
Nestor Aparicio
Baltimore Positive is the vision and the creative extension of four decades of sharing the love of local sports for this Dundalk native and University of Baltimore grad, who began his career as a sportswriter and music critic at The News American and The Baltimore Sun in the mid-1980s. Launched radio career in December 1991 with Kenny Albert after covering the AHL Skipjacks. Bought WNST-AM 1570 in July 1998, created WNST.net in 2007 and began diversifying conversations on radio, podcast and social media as Baltimore Positive in 2016. nes@baltimorepositive.com

Escaping with a victory in this one was certainly better than slinking away with a loss.

After five straight losses at home, this nail-biter Sunday Night Football nationally televised Baltimore Ravens division victory appeared to be blessed relief for head coach John Harbaugh, whose in-game strategy worked just well enough to have Justin Tucker rescue a shaky effort from the team on the strength of his incredible right foot with a 43-yard field goal at the buzzer to beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 19-17.

All praise for the always-less-than-humble, multi-million dollar golden foot of the Texas kicker: his teammates routinely refer to him as “the greatest kicker who ever lived,” and who are we to argue? You can add “purple savior” to his many titles of opera singer, RoFo coffee and chicken spokesman and post-kick poser.

For the Ravens, it was far from a dominant effort but the signs of life across the roster now become a beacon of hope after what felt like an ominous 2-2 start, marred by a pair of massive collapses at home that led to many questions about the soul of the squad, the injury-depleted locker room and its perceived eventual ceiling. The Marcus Peters fiasco and the Harbaugh failed decision in the loss to the Buffalo Bills suddenly seem like ancient history after another hour of tight, division football.

For now, in the aftermath of a victory over their new primary division rival and defending conference champions, the first-place Baltimore Ravens have moved to the front of the AFC North class at a time in the season when the perception is that winnable games are in the headlights, even if this New York Giants match-up suddenly feels a little steeper given their early season success and win over the Green Bay Packers in London.

The Ravens win over the Bengals on Sunday night was an uneven effort for quarterback Lamar Jackson, who loves the extra glare of the superstar bright lights but missed on two certain home run balls ­– first to Devin Duvernay down the middle and then terribly on a wide-open Tylan Wallace streaking alone down the right side after a completely blown coverage by the Bengals secondary on 4th down. Lamar also threw an ugly pick with an overthrow in the first half when the offense was driving for what felt like sure points.

“We missed a lot of opportunities tonight,” Lamar confessed before talking about how much he’s going to hate watching the film of the mistakes.

But it was in those final two minutes, when the game was on the line, that Lamar shined on the ground and used his unique “one of one” skills to back the Bengals down the field to their demise in short order. It also helps having the best kicker in the league to break out the dagger at home from anywhere on the other side of the 50.

Lamar said in the post-game presser that the two-minute drill philosophy is: “Work fast but smart.” Now five years into his wunderkind emergence on the NFL quarterback scene, the mere thought of him leading that kind of drive, down a meager point, for a game-winning drive feels like it’s certainly not too big for No. 8. In previous years, it always felt like he was going to need to throw the ball ­– and well – in those circumstances for the Ravens to win. But his maturity, clock management, ability to improvise and great leadership has now checked that box enough that the opponents know he’ll break their hearts if they leave him time and time outs. Back in the 2019 halcyon days, the team often had massive leads that didn’t require the all-too-familiar, late-game NFL two-minute tap dance. Back then, we said that this would be a tough style of offense to mount a hasty comeback but that story has dramatically changed because Lamar continues to improve his perceived weaknesses and rewrite the script. Much like Tucker, who at some point will try one from 70 yards and might hit it.

But it’s more than just the wizardry of Lamar that has the offense percolating when it needs to move the ball. The running back-by-committee has been aided by better offensive line play plus the consistency of Mark Andrews and the emergence of Devin Duvernay as a multi-use weapon. Getting Rashod Bateman back on the field and finding the lost Gus Edwards bus are threats for future use but certainly there’s a plan to have most everyone back on the field by the time the Ravens turn the corner of the bye into November. And J.K. Dobbins is on a pitch count but is trending toward more carries.

This patched up Ravens’ offensive line, which finally got Ronnie Stanley back in a limited role after missing 31 of 32 games, actually got better as the game went on against a multiple and well-disciplined Bengals defense – and that was certainly heartening to allow Greg Roman more flexibility to mix up the calls. In the end, Lamar’s feet were still the best weapon the Ravens had when the game was on the line. Lamar made the reads, saw the open holes and hit them giving the team what it needed when it needed it at the end.

Meanwhile, the formerly explosive Bengals offense under Joe Burrow was pedestrian in the early stages of the game and despite two long, second-half drives, the No. 1 selection of the 2020 draft never seemed to find a comfort level and didn’t solve the Ravens secondary down the field for a big play. Nothing came easy for Burrow, and the Ravens even managed a semblance of a pass rush with Odafe Oweh and newly-signed fossil Jason Pierre-Paul getting his mitts onto the ball at one point.

Points were tough in this one – as was execution in many respects.

The game wasn’t as pretty as that pink cancer-awareness beanie Lamar Jackson was sporting and the pound of the ground allowed them to slog out a crucial division home victory. The tone of all it was reminiscent of many of the Pittsburgh-Baltimore battles of AFC division ugliness and ground glory – the one-point game that came down a long field goal to determine the outcome.

It’s also nice to have that Justin Tucker fellow to make the tightrope feel more manageable. He’s worth every penny of the $6 million per year they spend on him.

“I prayed but I really didn’t have any doubt,” Lamar Jackson said of Tucker’s game winner.

Sometimes it feels like Tucker is incapable of missing one when it matters. It won’t happen often. John Harbaugh and the Ravens looked relieved that it didn’t happen on Monday night.

Both teams left points on the field in a game of few possessions and a narrow margin.

The failed Philly Special for Burrow and company at the goal line and the roles that Marcus Peters and Calais Campbell played in blowing up the Bengals chance to go ahead when the game was 13-10 was demoralizing in Cincinnati. Not having a healthy Tee Higgins and the Ravens playing a straight two-deep zone responsibly all night didn’t allow Burrow to go over their heads, which was a huge problem in the two losses to the Bengals last season.

This was an exhale game, a deep breathe victory. Things are gonna be fine. Turns out the sky is not falling in Owings Mills. At least not this week.

The Ravens looked motivated from last year’s losses to the Bengals. The offseason was long watching the very self-confident Burrow and his Cincinnati AFC Champion teammates show off and puff out for the first time this century. The Ravens players watched these guys in the Super Bowl and want some of that and know that it goes through Southern Ohio this time, instead of Pittsburgh. Organizationally, the Ravens current players know they’ll have to deal with Burrow as long as they’re in purple. So, these kind of games have a residual effect as well in the chess match.

This was a textbook John Harbaugh win – faith, perseverance, sticking together and finding a way to get Justin Tucker on the field to win it. The old “winning ugly” formula.

Despite the loss of Marcus Williams to a dislocated wrist, the team is finally stacking some healthy practices, rotating players to keep them fresh and improving. Those early, hideous losses to Miami and Buffalo acted as a sort of smelling salts for awareness – especially when you can’t hold a three-touchdown lead at home.

Getting Ronnie Stanley back. Using Devin Duvernay as a running back. Jason Pierre-Paul arrived with a sack and looks the part of a veteran who might have some juice left as a pass rusher. And Patrick Queen actually caught an interception this time!

It’s all good momentum at a time when the Ravens need it. The defending AFC champions wake up in Cincinnati today 2-3 and the Steelers and Browns have no chance of winning the division.

The Baltimore Ravens are suddenly in a very good place.

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