The playoffs don’t begin for two months, but Thursday’s AFC North matchup certainly feels like a postseason-caliber matchup.
The Cincinnati Bengals hit the road in Week 11 to face their nemesis, the Baltimore Ravens, in a game that will carry major divisional weight and figures to impact the entire AFC playoff picture.
Both teams lost in Week 10 in tense, hard-fought thrillers at home. Each will try to rebound on Thursday night, but the Bengals might be the more desperate of the two.
Cincinnati sit outside of the playoff field at 5-4 following Sunday's loss to the Texans. The Bengals had previously won four straight before to claw out of a 1-3 start to the season, which included a home loss to the Ravens in Week 2.
Lamar Jackson shouldered the load in that first meeting for the banged-up Ravens, who were missing three offensive and defensive starters going into the game and lost wide receiver Odell Beckham to an ankle injury during the game. Jackson threw for 237 yards and two scores, while running for 54 of Baltimore’s 178 rushing yards that day.
The Bengals offense was struggling at the time, beset by Joe Burrow's lingering calf injury. He threw a red-zone pick and didn’t lead the offense into the end zone until the late third quarter. Burrow and Cincinnati’s offense would take a few more weeks to get back on track once he fully recovered.
The 7-3 Ravens remain in contention for both the division title and the AFC’s top seed, in spite of their last-second loss the to Browns in Week 10. The Ravens' schedule down the stretch is tough, and a loss Thursday would knock them out of first place.
However, Cincinnati will face an even tougher closing slate, with all eight of its remaining opponents currently at or above .500 and in the playoff hunt.
Here are four things to watch for when the Bengals visit the Ravens on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- Joe Burrow must find cracks in Ravens' zone defense. After Burrow torched the Ravens’ pass defense twice in 2021, throwing for 941 yards in two meetings that season, Baltimore seemed to learn its lesson. An approach of defending Burrow with a man-heavy approach wasn’t going to cut it. The change has worked, though part of that can be attributed to Baltimore’s coordinator change from Wink Martindale to Mike Macdonald. The Ravens have played predominantly zone vs. Burrow in the four meetings (including one playoff game) since Macdonald's hiring. In Week 2, the Ravens ran zone 65.1% against the Bengals, per Next Gen Stats, and outside the red zone it was even higher (76.7%). This appears to do a few things. This approach might allow Burrow to complete a higher percentage of his passes, but it also limits chunk plays with multiple deep safeties, it forces Burrow to be patient (which opens up the Ravens' pass rush) and zone defense puts defenders' eyes on the QB. Burrow has averaged 5.8 yards per attempt in the past four games of this series, has been sacked 10 times and has only 12 runs for 30 yards. There should be opportunities to move the ball through the air, but Burrow must do it without wide receiver Tee Higgins, who’ll miss his second straight game due to a hamstring injury. Higgins led the Bengals with eight catches for 89 yards and two scores vs. the Ravens in Week 2. But Baltimore likely will be without top cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who is doubtful to play due to an ankle injury.
- Containing Lamar Jackson, Ravens run game is no easy feat for Bengals. Cincinnati’s defense is arguably coming off its worst performance in the Lou Anarumo era, allowing 544 yards and 14 plays of 10-plus yards to the Texans. Three takeaways by the Bengals helped keep the game close, but they had one sack (for no loss) and one tackle for loss. The Ravens, meanwhile, were a mixed bag offensively against a good Browns defense, but they rank second in rushing average and sixth in yards per pass attempts. In the first meeting, the Bengals took a zone-heavy approach and held the Ravens to one completion longer than 20 yards. But it came at the expense of the run defense, as Baltimore took advantage of some light boxes, despite missing two starting offensive linemen in the game. Jackson, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill made the Bengals pay with consistent rushing production in Week 2, although Hill now has been supplanted by rookie Keaton Mitchell, who has totaled 200 yards from scrimmage and averaged 14.3 yards per carry the past two games. Complicating matters for the Bengals is the fact that they’ve struggled to stop the run this season, and they’ll have to do it without Sam Hubbard, one of their better run defenders up front and a noted Raven killer. Trey Hendrickson will play despite a late-game knee injury on Sunday, which will help efforts. Joseph Ossai and Myles Murphy, however, figure to play extensively, but they are better-known for their pass-rush skill than for stopping the run.
- Can Bengals get anything from the run game? This game features the NFL’s top rushing attack of the Ravens against the 32nd-ranked run game of the Bengals. Cincinnati averages a mere 74.8 rush yards per game, is next-to-last in rush attempts per game (20.7) and 28th in the NFL in yards per carry (3.62). But in the Bengals managed to run for 134 yards against hte 49ers in Week 8 in their best all-around performance of the season. Joe Mixon ran for 87 in the win, his most since last season, and Burrow chipped in as a scrambler with 44 more. Mixon feasted against the 49ers’ light boxes, and Burrow was 2 of 2 picking up first downs on QB draws in that game. The Ravens have been one of the NFL’s top pass defenses all season, but their work vs. the run has been a little less impressive. They allow a solid 100.5 rush yards per game but a middling 4.12-yard rushing average, and that unit was humbled last week, allowing a season-high 178 yards to a Browns team missing its top two offensive tackles. In Week 2, Mixon was productive on a per-touch basis against the Ravens, with 59 yards on 13 carries. But Burrow, still dealing with the calf injury then, ran only once for five yards. Perhaps the Bengals can build in a few designed runs for Burrow now that he’s healthy and not forget about Mixon, who has run hard in recent games.
- Ravens can spring big plays downfield. The Bengals have been a turnover-dependent defense under Anarumo, but this season they’re allowing explosive plays at a rate we’ve not seen in recent years. Cincinnati is 30th in the NFL in yards per pass attempt at 7.38, and the Ravens averaged 7.19 against them in Week 2. Zay Flowers hauled in the Ravens’ only pass longer than 20 yards in that game, but it went for 52. He’s a game changer and big-play threat for the Ravens, but they have many. Twelve different Ravens have a reception of 20-plus yards this season. Beckham. had a 40-yard TD on Sunday. Mark Andrews hauled in a 36-yarder and was a big factor in beating the Bengals in Week 2. But Baltimore also hasn’t received much fireworks from receivers Nelson Agholor or Rashod Bateman lately. The Bengals have playmakers in the secondary, including Cam Taylor-Britt, who had a big fourth-quarter INT last week and has four on the season. But the Bengals’ secondary was picked apart by Texans rookie QB C.J. Stroud this past Sunday, and they also allowed several big pass plays against the Niners. If Hubbard’s replacements can’t juice up the pass rush, the Bengals’ secondary could be in for a long night.