Scoring first, forcing three turnovers, making stops inside the red zone, and running for 200 yards would give the Ravens a heck of a chance to pull off the upset in Cincinnati on Sunday night.
In fact, that’s exactly what Tennessee did against No. 1 seed Baltimore in the 2019 divisional round after entering that January night as a 10-point underdog against a Ravens team that had steamrolled the NFL with 12 straight wins entering the playoffs. Of course, it won’t be easy for John Harbaugh’s current team with such uncertainty at quarterback as the injured Lamar Jackson misses a sixth straight game and backup Tyler Huntley deals with right shoulder tendinitis.
The Bengals haven’t lost a game since Halloween and look the part of a serious Super Bowl contender. Meanwhile, the Ravens have never lost a wild-card road game, but they lost three of four to close the regular season and haven’t been this kind of an underdog in the opening round of the playoffs.
It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet in the postseason for the first time ever after splitting their regular-season meetings. The Ravens lead the all-time series by a 28-26 margin, but the Bengals are 17-10 playing at home.
Below are five predictions for Sunday night:
1. A first-quarter takeaway will give the Ravens an early lead. Cincinnati spent much of the week complaining about chippy play from last Sunday while the Baltimore took the accusations in stride with Roquan Smith responding, “See you Sunday night.” More relevant is how the Ravens made life difficult for Joe Burrow in two regular-season meetings as the Pro Bowl quarterback averaged just 5.6 yards per pass against an array of two-high-safety looks. Continuing to limit Burrow to that degree won’t be easy, but Mike Macdonald will scheme up early confusion to force him into an ill-advised throw. Cincinnati had the fourth-fewest turnovers in the NFL this season, so the Ravens need to strike quickly before Burrow settles in.
2. Bengals running back Joe Mixon will make an impact as a receiver and catch a touchdown. Cincinnati had some success running out of shotgun in the Week 5 meeting, but that ground game was nowhere to be found last week as the Ravens allowed 2.8 yards per carry despite trailing all day. That said, Mixon and Samaje Perine combined to make 98 receptions for 728 yards out of the backfield this season and will pose a problem for a defense trying to pressure the pocket while containing such a talented trio of wide receivers. Football Outsiders ranked Baltimore 23rd in efficiency covering running backs this season, so look for the Bengals to try to keep the second level of the Ravens defense in conflict.
3. J.K. Dobbins will log a career high in carries to rush for 120 yards. Whether it’s Huntley or rookie Anthony Brown at quarterback, it’s no secret that the Ravens need to run the heck out of the football to have a chance on Sunday night, and the third-year running back made his intentions clear Friday by saying, “I want it on my back; I want to carry the load.” It won’t be easy running inside with Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader plugging up the middle, but Dobbins was one of the NFL’s best backs down the stretch and has the upside to change the game. He has been a bright spot in an underwhelming second half of the season and will continue to shine.
4. Ja’Marr Chase will get behind the Baltimore secondary for a long touchdown reception. The Ravens defense held the Bengals to just over 4.0 yards per play last week and will continue to offer much resistance, but Burrow missed a few open throws that would have made the regular-season finale a more lopsided affair than it turned out to be. At some point, it’s going to be too much to ask this defense to continue making stops while the Ravens offense flounders as it has for weeks. You also have to wonder how sharp veteran cornerback Marcus Peters will be after not playing in a game since mid-December.
5. The Ravens will push the Bengals physically, but Cincinnati’s offensive firepower will be too much in a 26-16 defeat. Despite so much attention being paid to Jackson’s status and long-term future to the point that this hasn’t felt much like a playoff week at all, Harbaugh’s team will come ready to fight in a rivalry with a nastiness that’s starting to resemble Ravens-Steelers from years ago. Anything can happen in the NFL and the Ravens have the defense and ground game to keep this contest close, but the quarterback position and passing game are just too important to ignore the advantage the Bengals enjoy in those departments. A healthy Burrow has already taken Cincinnati to one Super Bowl and is looking to take the next step while Jackson will again be unavailable and Ravens fans are left to debate whether to start Huntley or Brown. Baltimore will keep it close into the fourth quarter and leave the Bengals tired and hurting for the divisional round, but a long, uncertain offseason will begin for the Ravens late Sunday night.