CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he doesn’t know if momentum matters going into the playoffs, but he does know that his players carry a lot of confidence after closing the regular season on an eight-game winning streak.
The Bengals made it to the Super Bowl last year despite losing their regular-season finale while resting starters for the playoffs.
This time, they didn’t have that choice with the possibility of losing home-field advantage. Now they are hoping to keep their rhythm going all the way to another chance at the Lombardi Trophy, but it will take the unique challenge of beating the Baltimore Ravens for a second straight week in order to advance.
Third-seeded Cincinnati (12-4) hosts No. 6 seed Baltimore (10-7) on Sunday night at Paycor Stadium. Here are five things to know about the matchup.
1. A more challenging rematch
Baltimore sat many of its starters in the regular-season finale at Cincinnati, mainly on offense, and most of those guys are expected to play Sunday. Quarterback Lamar Jackson remains out with a knee injury, and backup Tyler Huntley is listed as questionable with a right shoulder/wrist injury that sidelined him last week, but he was a full participant in practice Friday and should be good to go.
Running back J.K. Dobbins, right guard Kevin Zeitler and tight end Mark Andrews were all healthy scratches and their return, along with the probability the Ravens won’t need to rely on rookie third-string quarterback Anthony Brown, means the Bengals will be facing a more challenging offense than a week ago. Cornerback Marcus Peters (calf) also is back but Brandon Stephens (illness) remains out.
The Ravens beat the Bengals 19-17 in Week 5 in Baltimore with Jackson, but Ja’Marr Chase said the Bengals were still figuring things out on offense early in the season and the more recent results are a better reflection of what to expect.
2. Stopping the run
Even without Jackson, the Ravens’ offense is still based around a strong running game, and Dobbins has been outstanding since returning from injury in Week 14. Baltimore averages 160 rushing yards per game (second in the NFL), and Dobbins has 397 yards and one touchdown on 57 carries (6.96 yards per attempt) in his last four games.
Gus Edwards, who suffered a concussion last week, was cleared to play and adds a solid No. 2 punch.
The scheme is what makes Baltimore still successful without the league’s top rushing quarterback.
“It’s 11-on-11 run game,” Bengals defensive tackle DJ Reader said. “They do a good job of getting extra (pulling blockers) out, just creating different math on the line and it’s different. On defense, you’re all off the ball, besides the four or five guys that are set up on the ball. So everybody else is flowing to the play. On offense, generally everybody’s lined up on the line beside the running back and fullback. So, when you have people moving that are already on the line, some people are already engaged with those people. It’s cutting off half the field, it’s making different gaps for the defense. It’s just a really, really good scheme.”
The Bengals finished the regular season as the seventh best run defense in the league, allowing 106.6 yards rushing per game.
3. “There’s always get-backs”
The Bengals had some qualms about chippy behavior the Ravens displayed last week, though most of them wouldn’t specify what moments in the game or which Baltimore players were causing problems. One particular brush-up that was circulating on social media during and after the game was when Roquan Smith chest-bumped Chase after he missed a catch in the endzone in the third quarter. Chase said “he was the only one trying to do that messy stuff.”
“He did that on purpose,” Chase said. “It’s alright. We got something for that. There’s always get-backs.”
Baltimore seemed to be playing a little more physical overall, but the Bengals have to be careful not to let the opponent bait them into reacting. The teams combined for just eight penalties for 57 yards last week, but there was only one personal foul called.
“I think just controlling your emotions,” Taylor said. “This is going to be an intense game. Any time you play a divisional game and then you add the playoffs on top of that there’s an intensity and urgency that comes with that. I expect our guys to be ready to go.”
4. Adjusting to more changes
The Bengals will be without right guard Alex Cappa after already having to adjust to the loss of right tackle La’el Collins in the Week 16 game at New England. The offense has not closed out games well the past two outings, and now they are looking to get back on track for a complete performance without the chemistry they had worked to develop over the first 14 games.
Cincinnati had not seen any changes to the starting lineup until the Buffalo and Baltimore games that Hakeem Adeniji started in Collins’ spot. Max Scharping said he is ready to step up in Cappa’s spot, and although he hasn’t been getting those first-team reps until this week, he has been in the system and around the offense enough to feel comfortable.
Center Ted Karras didn’t sugarcoat what losing Cappa means for the offense, but it’s just another shot of adversity for the team to overcome.
“The O-line is a continuity and repetition position, so we’ve gotten a lot of reps (this week) and we’ve been repping all year, but it will be hard especially to replace Alex because of our relationship, just how to ID the defense, how to distribute all our blockers,” Karras said. “... I have to step up. Everyone’s got to step it up. Max has a great opportunity in front of him, and I’m excited for to see how he performs.”
The Bengals have allowed just an average of two sacks per game since giving up 13 sacks over the first two games, and Baltimore will likely be attacking that right side of the line. The Ravens allow just 18.5 points per game (third fewest) and 324.3 yards per game (tied for ninth fewest).
5. Lessons from the past
The Bengals will draw on last year’s playoff experiences to some extent, as they try to navigate another deep run.
Timely turnovers on defense, Evan McPherson’s ability to kick under pressure and Joe Burrow’s late-game heroics were the key ingredients to getting to the Super Bowl a year ago, but this season, Cincinnati has learned to win in different ways. If it comes to needing a big play late, the Bengals have confidence they can get it.
“They’ve all been in these systems for so long now,” Taylor said. “It really feels that way, so there’s just this confidence. This is the third game this January, and they know what the expectations are, they know what’s going to be needed of them. They’ve been through this before and they know what it’s going to take to do it again.”
Ravens at Bengals, 8:15 p.m., NBC, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
About the Author