The Ravens enjoyed a record day the last time they faced Cincinnati, rushing for an extraordinary 404 yards in a 38-3 blowout win to clinch a third consecutive trip to the postseason last January.
In fact, Baltimore has outscored the Bengals by a 114-19 margin over the last three meetings, making it all but silly to describe this as an AFC North rivalry game of late. But after a 4-2 start, Cincinnati is aiming to change that perception by beating the Ravens for the first time in three years on Sunday afternoon. Winners of five straight and sitting atop the AFC entering Week 7, John Harbaugh’s team wants to enter the bye week by winning its first divisional game of the season and showing the NFL that the improving Bengals aren’t yet ready for prime time.
“I hear they’re talking about what they’re going to do and this and that, and we’re just going to talk with our pads and our helmets,” defensive tackle Justin Madubuike said. “That’s how we roll over here. There’s definitely hostility, and it’s going to be a bloodbath for sure. We’re ready for it.”
It’s time to go on the record as these division foes clash for the 51st time in their regular-season history with the Ravens leading 27-23 and holding a 17-8 advantage at home. Baltimore is 14-12 against the Bengals under John Harbaugh and has won five straight in the series, which coincides with Lamar Jackson becoming the starting quarterback midway through the 2018 season.
Below are five predictions for Sunday:
1. Ja’Marr Chase will become the first wideout to go over 100 receiving yards against Baltimore in 2021. The Ravens have surrendered 100-yard receiving performances to tight ends and running backs this season, but they’ve limited top wide receivers with Football Outsiders ranking them fourth in efficiency against No. 1 wideouts. That’s a credit to both Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett since Baltimore rarely tabs one guy to travel with a No. 1 wideout throughout the game, so it will be interesting to see how Wink Martindale approaches Chase, who’s on pace to eclipse 1,500 receiving yards as a big-play rookie. Of course, it’s not as simple as just locking down Chase since Joe Burrow can look to the 6-foot-4 Tee Higgins and slot receiver Tyler Boyd as well as Joe Mixon and rookie Chris Evans out of the backfield. The offensive line remains a question mark, but few teams can match Cincinnati’s young skill position talent.
2. Rashod Bateman will catch his first career touchdown. Harbaugh admitted the rookie first-round pick ended up playing more than expected in his NFL debut last week, which was a product of how comfortable he looked until the fourth-quarter drop leading to an interception after the outcome had already been decided. With Sammy Watkins out for a second straight week, Jackson will need a third option to target behind star tight end Mark Andrews and top receiver Marquise Brown with the Bengals defense looking formidable against both the run and pass through the season’s first six weeks. Greg Roman describes the 6-foot-1, 193-pound Bateman as the potential “power forward” of the wide receiver group, which sounds like the kind of player who should thrive in the red zone as early as Sunday.
3. The Ravens will sack Burrow four times despite his two touchdown passes. Last week was a reminder of why it’s unwise to bet on a young quarterback who hasn’t yet faced a defense known for its aggressiveness and deception, and Burrow can speak to that after his miserable Week 5 showing in Baltimore last season. However, the first pick of the 2020 draft has been strong against the blitz in his second season by going 34-for-47 for six touchdowns and one interception, according to Pro Football Focus. Burrow won’t crumble under Baltimore’s pressure in the same way he did as a rookie, but he’s still playing behind an offensive line that remains one of Cincinnati’s clear weaknesses. The Bengals quarterback will make no shortage of plays with his impressive arm, but he’ll also find himself stuck in the pocket multiple times.
4. Devin Duvernay will return a punt for a touchdown to swing momentum at a key point. It’s crazy to think a second-year receiver who returned all of 26 kickoffs in unspectacular fashion at Texas and had never returned a punt in his life until late last year is making a strong case to become a Pro Bowl return specialist. Duvernay continues to lead the NFL in punt return average and returned a kickoff 47 yards in last week’s blowout win over the Chargers. The Bengals do rank favorably in punt and kick coverage, but that doesn’t mean they’ll contain Duvernay and a return unit looking closer and closer to breaking one. What better time for the first special-teams touchdown of the season than in a tight AFC North game?
5. Jackson will lead the Ravens in rushing and throw two touchdowns in a 27-17 victory. Much was made about Baltimore rushing for 187 yards and all three active running backs finding the end zone against a horrendous Chargers run defense, but Cincinnati is allowing just 3.9 yards per carry as well as 6.5 yards per pass attempt this season. That said, no NFL team has seen Jackson more than the Bengals, and that familiarity has made little difference with the 24-year-old quarterback throwing eight touchdown passes and rushing for 436 yards and two scores in his five career starts against them. Though this is an improved Cincinnati team that appears capable of hanging around in the AFC wild-card race, a favorable early schedule makes it difficult to gauge just how real the young Bengals are. They could command the NFL’s attention with a win in Baltimore in a way similar to how the Ravens were victorious in Seattle two Octobers ago, but my money is on the Bengals making a few too many mistakes against the better team with the best player on the field in Jackson. It will be interesting to see what the Bengals look like for the Week 16 rematch in Cincinnati, but I’m not betting against the Ravens on Sunday afternoon.