After all the injuries, after all the COVID cases (which clearly haven’t ended), after all the late rallies and the ones that fell just short, the Ravens head to Cincinnati this weekend with the AFC North title on the line.
No, the division won’t technically be decided this weekend, but for the Ravens (8-6), a victory puts them back in the driver’s seat with two games to play, while a loss puts their title hopes in deep jeopardy. The Bengals (8-6) would not only have a one-game lead in the division, but they would hold the tiebreaker over the Ravens based on the head-to-head season sweep.
To overtake the Bengals after a loss this week, the Ravens would need to win their last two (home vs. the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh), and have the Bengals lose their last two (home vs. Kansas City, at Cleveland).
The Steelers (7-6-1) and Browns (7-7) are still alive in this jam-packed crowd, but for the winner of the Ravens game this weekend, the division title becomes theirs to lose.
“It’s going to be a huge game for us — AFC North,” head coach John Harbaugh said earlier this week. “This game is going to go a long way in terms of determining who wins the division.”
The Ravens continue to be hounded by injuries and COVID issues. Quarterback Lamar Jackson, who missed the Ravens 31-30 loss to Green Bay this past week with an ankle injury, did not practice Dec. 22, and his availability remains a major question mark. Tyler Huntley, who played a strong game against the Packers, could be pressed into action once again in the biggest game of the season.
And as of Dec. 22, the Ravens had 15 players, including 11 from the 53-man roster, on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list after adding five more on Wednesday: defensive lineman Justin Madubuike, inside linebackers Chris Board and Kristian Welch, safety Geno Stone and practice squad offensive tackle David Sharpe.
The Ravens have added at least one player to the reserve/COVID-19 list for seven straight days.
The Ravens surely remember, and have watched tape of, the Bengals’ 41-17 drubbing of them at M&T Bank Stadium in October. The Ravens took a 17-13 lead early in the second half, but the Bengals responded with the game’s final 28 points.
The health of Jackson and the remainder of the roster will be the top storyline in the days leading up to the game, but once the ball is kicked off, here are three keys to a Ravens win:
1. Convert third downs.
The Ravens rank 25th in the league in third-down conversion, at 37.1 percent. Not only does failing on third down stall drives, but it puts more pressure on a short-handed Ravens defense that has three starting defensive backs on injured reserve and four other defensive backs on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
This past week against Green Bay, the Ravens mounted three sustained drives to begin the game, taking a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter in their most crisp half of offense during the past month. It was no coincidence that they converted five of seven third downs over those three possessions. Tyler Huntley hit Mark Andrews on three of those, and he connected to James Proche and Devin Duvernay on the other two.
If the Ravens want to keep the ball away from Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and his group of offensive playmakers, and if they want to take the stress off their patchwork defense, it will be imperative that the Ravens’ offense — with whomever is at quarterback — can move the chains and stay on the field.
2. Create turnovers.
Nothing helps the offense more than a sudden-change play by the defense, but those have been too infrequent this season. The Ravens’ turnover ratio of minus-9 ranks 29th in the league, and they went five games without an interception. Their total of six interceptions is tied for second-fewest in the league.
The Ravens did intercept Burrow in the previous meeting (by Marlon Humphrey), and they scored a defensive touchdown against Burrow last year when his former LSU teammate, Patrick Queen, returned a fumble 53 yards for a score.
If there’s an ‘X’ factor in this game in that regard, it could be linebacker Odafe Oweh. The Ravens rookie has been quiet recently, with no sacks or quarterback hits in the past three games. But he has forced three fumbles this year, including one that essentially sealed the win over the Kansas City Chiefs, and if the Ravens’ defense comes up with a game-changing play, there’s a good chance that Oweh will be involved.
It seems such a fundamental concept, but it has been one of the Ravens’ most consistent shortcomings this year, and that was on full display against Cincinnati in October, as Ja’Marr Chase turned a 5-yard slant into an 82-yard touchdown after the Ravens failed to get him to the ground after the catch.
“That’s going to be very important,” Harbaugh said. “Tackling is critical. Many of their yards are catch-and-run yards. Many of their rushing yards are yards after contact. … So we have to do a great job tackling, of course.”
According to Pro Football Reference, Bengals running back Joe Mixon has gained 495 of his 1,094 yards after initial contact. That is the third-highest total of yards after contact in the league among running backs. He had 12 carries for 59 yards in the first meeting between the teams.
Referring to Mixon’s ability to gain yardage after contact, Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said before the October meeting between the teams, “Tell me, is he a hard runner? Yes, he’s a hard runner, and he’s a problem to deal with.”
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