A road win over the Baltimore Ravens last month helped the Cincinnati Bengals serve notice they could be a surprising factor in a crowded AFC North.
The Ravens now need to return the favor in Cincinnati or face a major uphill climb in the conference’s toughest division.
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The Bengals are coming off a bye week heading into Sunday’s rematch, but Baltimore enters feeling confident after snapping a three-game losing streak with an impressive victory.
A 17-14 win over the Ravens on Oct. 11 has been among the highlights of Cincinnati’s impressive start. Carson Palmer found Andre Caldwell for the game-winning touchdown with 22 seconds left after Cedric Benson became the first player in 40 games to top 100 rushing yards against Baltimore.
After a 45-10 drubbing of Chicago before their bye, the Bengals (5-2) are tied with Pittsburgh atop the division, and they can improve to 4-0 within the AFC North with a victory Sunday.
That would give Cincinnati the tiebreaker between these teams while Baltimore would fall two games out of first place.
“There is no doubt about it, this game matters. It matters a lot for us,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They can probably survive a loss – we can survive a loss, too – but it will make it a lot more interesting if we go down there and win.”
Baltimore (4-3) had dropped three straight by less than a touchdown before responding last Sunday with a 30-7 win over Denver, which had entered 6-0.
Joe Flacco was 20 of 25 for 175 yards and a touchdown while the emerging Ray Rice ran for 84 yards and a score against the stingy Broncos defense, but the Ravens’ most important performance may have come from their own defense.
One of the most dominating units in the league in recent seasons, Baltimore’s defense has slowed down this year after former coordinator Rex Ryan left to coach the New York Jets. The Ravens rank 13th overall defensively but looked rejuvenated last week, holding Denver to season lows of 66 rushing yards and 134 passing.
“Whatever success or failure you have one week does not guarantee or ensure anything for the next week,” Harbaugh said. “Our guys are excited about the fact that they played well against a very effective offense, but we’re going to line up against a really effective offense on Sunday. That presents a challenge for us.”
Baltimore should be especially motivated against the Bengals after allowing Benson’s 120-yard performance last month. Since 2000, Baltimore opponents have averaged 88.4 rushing yards, the fewest of any team in that stretch.
“That’s something we take pride in,” linebacker Jarret Johnson said after the loss to Cincinnati. “We put it on our backs, that, ‘Hey, you’re not going to run the ball on us.’ And when a team is able to do that, yeah, it’s hard.”
But Benson has been doing it consistently during a bounce-back season. Coming off a career-high 189 yards on the ground against the Bears two weeks ago, Benson joins Tennessee’s Chris Johnson as the only players averaging more than 100 yards per game.
Palmer threw for five touchdowns against Chicago and appears healthy after starting just four games last season. He’s been well-protected by a new-look offensive line after the Bengals ranked last in total offense and allowed an AFC-high 51 sacks last year.
Even with tackle Andre Smith sidelined by a broken foot, Palmer has been sacked just twice in the last three games, a big reason Cincinnati has already exceeded its win total from 2008. Smith, the No. 6 overall pick in April’s draft, could make his NFL debut Sunday.
“We’re in a good spot right now,” Palmer said. “Being 5-2 and tied for first in the division – it’s ours to lose, really. We just need to hang on for as long as we can and finish the season with a bunch of wins and see what happens as far as the playoff picture’s concerned.
“But that’s a little far down the road for us right now. It’s about Baltimore, and then it’s about (Nov. 15 at) Pittsburgh. I don’t even know who we play after that, honestly.”
Cincinnati will be looking for a repeat performance defensively after holding the Ravens to a season-low 257 total yards and intercepting Flacco twice in last month’s win. Baltimore has scored at least 21 points in each of its other six games, but it was held to one offensive touchdown and 12 first downs against the Bengals.
Flacco has looked much better since that game, completing more than 70 percent of his passes without an interception in the last two contests while frequently orchestrating a no-huddle attack.
As a rookie last year, Flacco was 19 of 29 for 280 yards and two touchdowns in the Ravens’ 34-3 win at Cincinnati on Nov. 30.