‘A playoff game in November’ — 5 storylines to watch in tonight’s Bengals-Ravens AFC North matchup

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan described Thursday’s matchup against the Baltimore Ravens as one that “feels like a playoff game in November.”

The Bengals (5-4) seek their first AFC North win and are trying to jump back into the playoff picture. They are currently eighth in the AFC. Seven teams reach the playoffs. Baltimore (7-3) maintains the division lead despite Sunday’s loss to Cleveland.

The primetime atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium will add to the intensity. Baltimore won a close contest against the Bengals on Sunday Night Football at home last year, 19-17.

Here are five things to know about Thursday’s game:

1. What’s at stake?

It’s still early enough this game won’t make or break the season, but the Bengals will need a lot of things to go right over the last seven games if they fall to 5-5. At that point, they would be 0-3 in the AFC North, just 1-5 in the AFC and two-and-a-half games back of Baltimore with the division tiebreaker gone by virtue of a Ravens’ season sweep.

Three AFC North teams are in the playoffs at the moment. It seems probable the Ravens finish with at least 12 wins and possible the Steelers do as well. The Bengals would need to win out to reach that level, and while they still could make the playoffs with a lesser record, the likelihood would be they would need to do it as a wildcard.

Cincinnati wants home playoff games, and a win at Baltimore gives them the best shot at achieving that.

2. Stopping the run

The Bengals haven’t been very good at stopping the run this season, ranking third worst in the NFL while allowing 136.2 rushing yards per game. They are facing the best rushing offense in the league — without defensive end Sam Hubbard, whom defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo calls one of the “top edge run defenders in the league.”

Hubbard is out for the second straight game because of an ankle injury.

Baltimore averages 154.9 rushing yards per game, boosted by the balanced quarterback play of Lamar Jackson, who adds 481 yards rushing and five touchdowns to the 502 yards and eight touchdowns racked up by Gus Edwards on 121 carries. Justice Hill, the brother of Bengals safety Dax Hill, adds 258 yards rushing and three touchdowns.

The Bengals had seemingly taken steps forward in the run defense before Sunday’s loss to Houston when Devin Singletary rushed for 150 yards.

“(Hubbard is) irreplaceable in that position,” Anarumo said. “The other guys will have to step up, and it’s not that they did poorly. Everybody has their hand in that in the run game. It’s the D-line up front, the linebackers fitting it a little bit quicker and harder, and then the safeties and corners crack-replacing, that’s a big, big part of it. And we didn’t do a great job at any of those things (Sunday).”

3. Hendrickson good to go

Just a few days ago, it seemed likely the Bengals would be without both its starting defensive ends, but Trey Hendrickson was a full participant in practice Wednesday and is expected to play Thursday.

Hendrickson went down with a knee injury after the final play of the game Sunday when Noah Brown stumbled backward into his left leg, causing him to fall awkwardly on it.

Although Hendrickson’s MRI showed no structural damage, he hyperextended the knee, and yet, he was not listed with any designation on the game status report. Hendrickson, who finished last season playing on a broken wrist, was a limited participant in practice Tuesday but went full-go in the final practice of the week Wednesday. His presence Thursday will be key as the Bengals need to keep applying pressure on Jackson to hopefully contain him to the pocket and make him more predictable.

Jackson is the best rushing quarterback in the league but is getting it done through the air as well with 2177 yards and 10 passing touchdowns. The Bengals need to be ready for anything.

“He can do it all now,” Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt said. “He can throw the ball; he got guys around him. He got weapons, he got a dynamic running game. They’ve got one of the most creative running games in the NFL, so you’ve got to be able to defend two plays at one time. You’ve got a running back that can run the ball, he can throw the ball and now he can throw it to anybody down the field. He’s sitting in the pocket, reading keys. He’s basically taken full control of this offense the new OC has given him.”

4. Getting into a rhythm

The Bengals offense has scored touchdowns on the opening drive of five straight games, but Sunday they sputtered after that, punting on five straight complete drives, including four three-and-outs. Baltimore is an offense that tends to control the clock, so every possession is important.

Coach Zac Taylor said the Bengals just didn’t do a good enough job on first and second downs, and the staff needs to put the offense in a better position with the play calls Thursday to make sure Joe Burrow has more third-and-short situations or fresh sets of downs to keep moving the ball down the field.

Baltimore’s defense will be tough to break, as the Ravens only allow 15.7 points per game (fewest in the league) and 273.6 yards per game (second fewest).

“I think Baltimore’s defense has always been pretty good,” Taylor said. “All 11 guys that start are really sound good players, they’re really smart, they communicate really well, good tacklers, very sound with their coverages and, and how they match. And, they’ve just, they’ve always done a good job, and as a team, they do a good job moving the ball on offense and scoring points and special teams dictating the field position. And so, you factor all that in and that’s the style game you typically play when you’re playing against them.”

5. More injuries

In addition to missing Sam Hubbard, wide receivers Tee Higgins (hamstring) and Andrei Iosivas (knee) are out due to injury, and fellow receiver and punt returner Charlie Jones (thumb) remains questionable as he has not yet been activated to the roster after his designated return to practice from injured reserve.

Jones has been a full participant in practices the past two weeks, but special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said he needs to prove he can hold onto the ball before the Bengals will feel comfortable using him.

Baltimore could be without cornerback Marlon Humphreys (calf), left tackle Ronnie Stanley (knee) and linebacker Trenton Simpson (concussion), who all did not practice Monday or Tuesday. Offensive lineman John Simpson (illness/shoulder) and linebacker Kyle Van Noy (groin) also did not practice Tuesday.

If Stanley is out, Patrick Mekari projects to start at left tackle, and he struggled last week against Myle Garrett. It could be a good matchup for Hendrickson.


Bengals at Ravens, 8:15 p.m., Amazon Prime, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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