The Cincinnati Bengals will be without two of their top playmakers on Sunday against the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens, who are looking to snap a five-game losing streak in this divisional series.
Receiver A.J. Green (hamstring) and running back running back Giovani Bernard (knee) were injured in last Sunday's 16-12 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Despite those injuries, Ravens coach John Harbaugh expects another hard-fought game against a rival he has not beaten since Nov. 10, 2013.
“We respect the Bengals, obviously,” Harbaugh said. “We have not beat them for a while. It is a big game for us. It is a big challenge for us. They have always been tough for us as long as I have been here. I'm sure (they were tough) before that as well. It is a rivalry game, a division game.”
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Baltimore (5-5) has struggled to contain Green throughout his career. In eight games against the Ravens, Green has caught 41 passes for 726 yards with six touchdowns. Cincinnati has won five of those eight contests.
The Ravens have a revamped defense that is second in the NFL, allowing 295.1 yards per game.
Baltimore could get another boost with the return of linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who has not played since Oct. 9 against the Redskins because of a foot injury.
While the Ravens are looking to tighten their grip on first place in the division, Cincinnati (3-6-1) is simply trying to salvage its season. After managing a 27-27 tie against the Washington Redskins in London on Oct. 30, the Bengals lost their next two games by a combined five points.
“We haven't won close games”, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. “We've had opportunities in the fourth quarter of football games. We've had leads. We've had opportunities, and we haven't closed the games out.”
With Green out of the lineup. Baltimore can turn its focus to shutting down Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed the first six games of the season with an ankle injury. Rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd also will likely get more targets.
The onus will be on Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton to get them the ball while facing an aggressive Ravens' defense that has 23 sacks and 11 interceptions through 10 games.
“I feel like it is your typical Baltimore defense,” Dalton said. “They are big up front, they do a really good job against the run, and they get you in third-and-long situations, so they are good on third down. That is the style, and that is the way I know Baltimore has been for a long time.”
The Ravens and Bengals have a similar offense. Both teams are able to move the ball, but struggle finding the end zone. Baltimore and Cincinnati are each averaging 19.9 points per game, tied for 25th in the league.
The Bengals, however, are just 1-4 on the road this season.
“We have a lot of football ahead, and we have a big football game for us come Sunday in Baltimore,” Lewis said.
One of the keys for Baltimore will be establishing an effective running game to wear down the Bengals. Terrance West and rookie Kenneth Dixon have gotten better as the season progressed. However, penalties and late-game deficits has limited their opportunities.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who has also played better over the past three weeks, will also look to take some shots downfield to prevent Cincinnati from crowding the box.
“We are trying to get everybody involved as much as we can,” Flacco said. “When you are short on numbers, you obviously can't do as much as you would like to. I do not know if that has had a direct impact on it, but it may have affected it a little bit.”
Harbaugh is 7-9 all-time against the Bengals. The Ravens have not won an AFC North title since 2012. Cincinnati has won two of the past three division crowns. The importance of this game is not lost on Harbaugh or his players.
“We want to start fast, but mainly, we just want to play good football – complementary football, winning football, in all three phases and playing together,” Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. “If we can do that, we'll have a good shot.”