The Ravens lost their regular-season finale to the Bengals, 27-16, as third-string quarterback Anthony Brown committed three costly turnovers in the first half. But a determined defensive effort gave them hope for a better result in Sunday’s wild-card round playoff rematch, sure to be contentious after Bengals players accused the Ravens of dirty tactics.
Ravens passing game vs. Bengals pass defense
The Ravens have scored just 75 points in six games with Tyler Huntley or Anthony Brown at quarterback and have not scored more than one touchdown in a game since the last weekend of November. Huntley missed the regular-season finale in Cincinnati after he was limited in practice by wrist and shoulder injuries. He said he had a good chance to play in the game, so perhaps his absence was simply part of coach John Harbaugh’s overall plan to rest up for a wild-card-round rematch against the Bengals. The Ravens had hoped franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson might return for the playoffs, but he did not practice Wednesday because of the knee injury that has kept him out since the first weekend of December and tweeted Thursday night that his knee “remains unstable.” Harbaugh and his staff made it clear they were treating their Week 18 game against the Bengals as the less important piece of a two-act story. Presumably, they held their best tricks in reserve as they sat Huntley along with their top runner, J.K. Dobbins, and their top pass catcher, Mark Andrews. Brown, making his first NFL start, did not settle down until the second half, and his three turnovers led directly to three Cincinnati scores. Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson struggled in perhaps his worst game of the season, catching two passes on nine targets and letting a pass bounce off him into the arms of Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton. Rookie tight ends Isaiah Likely (eight catches on 13 targets, 103 yards) and Charlie Kolar (four catches on six targets, 49 yards) were the bright spots, and it will be fascinating to see if they can produce in partnership with Andrews.
The Bengals have won eight in a row, so it’s hard to find much fault with their recent performance. But they have missed top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who’s out for the season. Eli Apple and rookie Cam Taylor-Britt are not on his level. Safeties Jessie Bates III (three interceptions, seven passes defended) and Vonn Bell (four interceptions, seven passes defended) help make up for the subpar talent at cornerback. Trey Hendrickson (eight sacks, 24 quarterback hits) and Sam Hubbard (6 1/2 sacks, 22 quarterback hits) are productive edge rushers, but the Bengals rank 29th in the league in sacks. If the Ravens can get their pass offense going, this would be an area to attack, but we’ve seen little evidence of progress with Jackson sidelined.
Bengals passing game vs. Ravens pass defense
This is where most of Cincinnati’s superstar talent is concentrated, with quarterback Joe Burrow (4,475 yards, 35 touchdowns) throwing to ace deep threats Ja’Marr Chase (1046 yards, nine touchdowns in 12 games) and Tee Higgins (13.9 yards per catch, seven touchdowns). The Bengals rank third in third-down conversion rate and fifth in touchdown percentage from the red zone, and their ability to score after Ravens turnovers was the key to their 27-16 win last Sunday. But the Ravens have frustrated Burrow in both their matchups this season, giving him few chances to take deep shots against blitzes or man-to-man coverage. They held him to just 215 yards on 42 attempts last Sunday and held Cincinnati’s offense to 4 yards per play overall (down from a season average of 5.5). Higgins was a nonfactor with one catch on seven targets, and tight end Hayden Hurst managed just 14 yards on his four catches thanks to tough coverage from rookie nickel back Kyle Hamilton.
The Bengals will try to protect Burrow without starting right tackle La’el Collins and starting right guard Alex Cappa, who hurt his ankle in the third quarter last Sunday. Will Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald try to attack this vulnerability with more schemed pressure or stick with the relatively conservative approach, spiced up by deceptive coverages, that has worked so well against the Bengals this season? Whatever approach he takes, he will likely have starting cornerback Marcus Peters back from a calf injury and defensive end Calais Campbell available for more snaps.
Ravens running game vs. Bengals run defense
With Dobbins inactive and Brown at quarterback, we did not see the Ravens’ usual ground power last Sunday. They did suffer a potentially costly loss when running back Gus Edwards left the game to be checked for a head injury. Edwards went into concussion protocol, and his status for the playoff matchup is uncertain. If he’s absent or limited, Dobbins could be asked to take on the heaviest workload of his Ravens career. He looked up to the task after returning from a cleanup surgery on his knee, leading the league with 397 rushing yards over a four-game span and pushing his season average to 5.7 yards per carry. Huntley (3.2 yards per carry) is a threat to scramble but significantly less dangerous than Jackson on designed runs.
The Bengals allowed 155 rushing yards against the Ravens in Week 5, but they’re tougher now thanks to the immovable presence of defensive tackle D.J. Reader, who was injured for the first meeting. Linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt have also played well, combining for 221 tackles.
Bengals running game vs. Ravens run defense
After the Pittsburgh Steelers pushed them around on New Year’s Day, the Ravens rebounded to hold the Bengals to 55 yards on 20 carries last Sunday. They were particularly tough against No. 1 running back Joe Mixon, limiting him to 27 yards on 11 carries. Pro Bowl linebacker Roquan Smith, who just agreed to a $100 million contract extension, led the way with 16 tackles. Hamilton, linebacker Patrick Queen and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike also stood out for a defense that ranks second against the run in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in the games Smith has played. The Ravens would like to do a better job tackling Burrow when he scrambles, and he’s also a threat at the goal line.
Ravens special teams vs. Bengals special teams
Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker made all three of his field goal attempts in Cincinnati to finish the season 37-for-43. His reliability in the clutch could loom large if the playoff rematch comes down to the final minutes. Justice Hill has averaged 24.7 yards per kickoff return filling in for Devin Duvernay, but James Proche II has averaged just 6 yards on four punt returns. They’re back up to No. 2 in special teams DVOA.
The Bengals finished 19th in special teams DVOA thanks to an uneven season from kicker Evan McPherson, who has missed five field goal attempts and four extra point tries. McPherson is perfect from 50 yards or beyond, so he remains a weapon late in halves. The Bengals replaced longtime punter Kevin Huber with Drue Chrisman after nine games, and Chrisman nailed a few terrific punts to bury the Ravens in poor field position last Sunday. Trent Taylor is a solid punt returner.
Ravens intangibles vs. Bengals intangibles
These AFC North rivals don’t feel much affection for one another, a fact hammered home by the Bengals’ complaints about dirty play after their win last Sunday. The Bengals have won eight in a row and rightly believe they have a good chance at a repeat trip to the Super Bowl. They’re 6-1 at home and will aim to make the Ravens look bad.
At the same time, the Ravens came out of their 27-16 defeat feeling surprisingly good thanks to their success defending Burrow. They would feel a lot better with Jackson at quarterback but believe they can give the Bengals a rough challenge even without their most important player.
The Ravens have found an effective formula for frustrating Joe Burrow and his crew of gifted pass catchers. But we simply have not seen evidence they can score enough points with Tyler Huntley in place of Lamar Jackson at quarterback. The Bengals will hold them off in a tense, punishing game. Bengals 24, Ravens 19