8:15 PM EST, NBC – Line: Bengals -8.5, Over/Under: 40.0
Super Wild Card Weekend rages on with yet another division matchup, as the surging Cincinnati Bengals host the Baltimore Ravens for the second week in a row in this showdown from Paycor Stadium in Southern Ohio. Though they returned to the postseason for the fourth time in the last five years, the Ravens (10-7, 2nd in AFC North) find themselves in a troubling familiar predicament, as the health of their star Quarterback, Lamar Jackson, is once again weighing heavily on their minds. A year ago, Jackson (pictured below) missed the final four games of the stretch run with a knee injury, with Baltimore losing all of those contests en route to missing the postseason for the first time in three years. Fast forward to this season and it has been an eerily similar tale; Jackson limped off the field early in 10-9 victory over the Broncos with what was initially reported as a sprained PCL, though hasn’t seen the field since then despite the early prognosis predicting he would be sidelined for just two-to-three weeks. Without him, (Head Coach) John Harbaugh’s troops have struggled MIGHTILY on that side of the football, averaging a dismal 13.0 points per game on 311.6 total yards, including a league-low 146.2 via the pass, with seven turnovers along the way. (Young Backup Quarterback) Tyler Huntley played well in Jackson’s absence last season, and though he has managed to win two of these five games and clinch a playoff spot in the process, the schedule during this stretch was arguably the softest in the NFL, which makes their offensive woes look all the worse. Granted, it’s not as if this attack was setting the world on fire PRIOR to Jackson’s injury, for the Ravens are a long time removed from the Quarterback’s electrifying sophomore campaign which saw him earn 2019 MVP honors and lead the team to a number one seed. (Offensive Coordinator) Greg Roman has drawn the ire of many around the Baltimore area, but there has been a dearth of playmaking options in the passing game; it’s awfully telling when you’re relying upon the likes of (veteran Receivers) DeSean Jackson, Demarcus Robinson, and Sammy Watkins at such a critical stage of the campaign, with none of those players on the roster when the season began. (Sophomore Wideout) Rashod Bateman was lost to a broken foot after Week Six, while (Return man extraordinaire) Devin Duvernay did the same in practice a month ago. Now, more than ever, the blackbirds need Jackson to return and play the role of superman, though the odds of that happening at this point are getting bleaker by the day, as Harbaugh has refused to provide the world with any particular updates. Of course, this is all playing while the most important contract negotiation in the history franchise has continued to loom over all parties like a storm cloud. Entering the final season of his rookie contract, the 26-year-old parted ways with his agent and has been representing himself in what is being reported as a $300 million negotiation, with the franchise unwilling to fully commit to such a heavy investment, particularly given his injury history over the last two years. Has he outperformed his rookie deal? Absolutely. Is he the foundation of an Offense completely tailored to his unique talents? Absolutely. Does such an outlay of finances carry a significant degree of risk? You better believe it. Watching this situation play out, one can’t help but buy into the conspiracy theories that Jackson could effectively be holding out to secure the hefty payday he’s likely to get in the offseason, be it from the Ravens or some other QB-needy team, of which there are plenty that would welcome his services. Earlier in the week leading up to this rubber match with Cincinnati, Harbaugh and (General Manager) Eric DeCosta signed (Pro-Bowl Linebacker) Roquan Smith to a massive $100 million contract extension, with $60 million in total guarantees, the richest deal ever for an off-ball Linebacker. After arriving via trade from the Bears back in early November, the 25-year-old has gone on to post eighty-six tackles, seven for loss, two sacks, and interception and three deflected passes. Prior to his acquisition, Baltimore’s Defense had yielded an average of 22.8 points per game on 364.3 total yards, but in the nine games since then they’ve permitted just 14.7 points on 288.8 total yards. How will this deal effect their negotiations with Jackson? Time will tell as DeCosta will have create some serious cap space to even be able to offer the Franchise Tag which is becoming more and more likely with each passing week.
When we last saw the Ravens, they came into their rematch with the Bengals with little to play for other than the possibility of coin flip deciding the venue of a potential postseason affair with their AFC North rivals. Coming into last Monday’s fateful no-contest between the Bengals and Bills, Cincinnati had an opportunity to clinch the division with a win, though a loss would make this season finale decisive in terms of northern supremacy. However, that no-contest meant that these Tigers won the division based on win percentage, turning this matchup into little more than a glorified walk-through in lieu of the playoffs. And that is exactly how this one played out, folks, as Harbaugh opted to sit many starters, including Huntley, who suffered from concussion-like symptoms earlier in the week, with undrafted free agent Anthony Brown taking the wheel. The hosts started strong with seventeen unanswered points to kick things off, as the visitors were nothing short of a mess; after punting on their opening drive, Brown was picked off on back-to-back possessions, before turning it over on downs prior to finally getting on the board with a four-yard touchdown run courtesy of (veteran Tailback) Kenyan Drake. However, just when you thought that they may have turned the tide, Brown was sacked on the goal line with the ball recovered by the Bengals in the end zone, making it 24-7 just before halftime. In the end, the Ravens may have amassed more total yards (386) than they had in six weeks, though much of that came from Brown in the second half after Cincinnati visibly took their foot off the gas as many starters failed to play post intermission. The young QB was just 19-of-44 passing with a pair of interceptions and a lost fumble, along with four sacks. Drake led the way with sixty rushing yards and that aforementioned score on sixteen carries, while (Rookie Tight End) Isaiah Likely hauled in eight receptions for a career-high 103 yards. Looking to tonight’s matchup in Southern Ohio, Baltimore has lost three of the last four meetings, though Jackson only participated in one of those defeats. As unlikely as it seems at the moment, if the Pro-Bowler suits up, he has amassed a 6-2 record against the Bengals, completing 59.95 of his passes for an average of 166.6 yards on 6.84 net yards per attempt with ten touchdowns opposed to four interceptions, while rushing for another 588 yards and two scores on 6.46 yards per carry. When he met them earlier this season, a narrow 19-17 victory at M&T Bank Stadium, he was largely contained on the ground with fifty-eight yards on twelve attempts, while passing for just 174 yards, a touchdown, and an interception on 19-of-32 throws. If it happens to be Huntley, he’s completed just 6-of-12 passes for forty-seven yards in two encounters. From a betting perspective, Baltimore is 5-5 against the spread in their last ten games overall, while covering the line in six of their last ten trips away from the Chesapeake. However, being an underdog has suited them just fine, for they’ve posted a sterling 8-2 record against the spread when getting points, though that really hasn’t been the case when applied to their ongoing series with Cincinnati, as Harbaugh’s outfit has covered the number in just three of their last ten such contests in that regard. Furthermore, the blackbirds have failed to cover four straight games against opponents with winning records (0-2-2), which is obviously the case tonight. On the injury front, we’ve covered the Jackson dilemma ad nauseam, though Huntley is listed as questionable with a sore wrist and shoulder, which means the aforementioned Brown could be in line for his second straight start, though (veteran Defensive End) Calais Campbell is expected to return after missing two of the last outings with a bulky knee.
Meanwhile, the 2022 regular season ended in familiar fashion for the Bengals (12-4, 1st in AFC North) as well, who once again caught fire down the stretch to win the division title, positioning themselves for what they hope will be another lengthy playoff run. Last season, Cincinnati won five of their final five outings to advance all the way to Super Bowl LVI, where they came up oh, so short in a 23-20 loss to the Rams. This season, they closed out the schedule with eight straight victories, including last weekend’s 27-16 win over Baltimore, which we’ll dive into in more detail shortly. With that said, it hasn’t been all rainbows and unicorns for these cats, for they overcame a middling 4-4 start to get to this point, in which the Offense struggled to find their rhythm. Of course, that’s understandable when you overhaul virtually your entire Offensive Line, which became the mandate following a campaign in which (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Joe Burrow was sacked a league-high fifty-one times, including nineteen more during the playoff run. With a torn ACL and MCL cutting his rookie campaign short, protecting the franchise QB has become priority number one for (Head Coach), who set about doing just that in the offseason, adding a mix of veterans to put together a new right side of the Line, consisting of Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins. Granted, it took some time for this group to develop the requisite chemistry, particularly with Burrow (pictured below) sitting out the entirety of the preseason, though nobody fathomed that they would have shipped thirteen sacks in the first two games. However, since those two defeats, the quintet has permitted just twenty-eight sacks, which equates to a sack percentage of 5.41%, which is far cry from the 8.9% that Burrow endured a year ago. It’s no surprise that better protection has led to a much more prolific Offense, with the 26-year-old able to make proper use of the plethora of weapons at his disposal. During this eight-game winning streak, the Bengals have averaged 29.0 points per game on 372.0 total yards, with Burrow completing 67.4% of his throws for an average of 268.3 yards on 6.92 net yards per attempt, with twenty total touchdowns in comparison to committing seven turnovers. When this group is firing on all cylinders, they can be downright scary, for there are few Offenses that possess that litany of weapons these felines do; (Receivers) Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins each amassed over 1,000 receiving yards, with the former still managing to reel in eighty-seven receptions for 1,046 yards and nine scores despite missing five games due to a hip injury. (Veteran Wideout) Tyler Boyd is about as a good a WR3 as you’ll find in the league, while both (Tailbacks) Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are threats to catch the football out of the backfield. However, this team isn’t just their Offense, for (Defensive Coordinator) Lou Anarumo has once again helmed a solid Defense, that may be short on big names, but not on game; the Bengals rank sixth overall in points allowed (20.1), seventh against the run (106.6), ninth in yards per carry (4.2), eighth in takeaways (24), and ninth in red zone percentage (52.0%). This unit has been just as integral to this current stretch as Burrow & Co, relegating the opposition to 19.7 points per game on 335.4 total yards, including 87.6 yards versus the run, with fourteen takeaways along the way. Furthermore, they’ve been adept at bending but not breaking, yielding ten passing touchdowns opposed to seven interceptions, while logging sixteen sacks during that stretch.
When we last saw the Bengals, they came into that finale against the Ravens with one thing on their minds: win. Despite being crowned AFC North Champions for a second consecutive season, the thought that they would leave the venue of a potential third encounter with Baltimore to a coin flip was nothing short of unacceptable for Cincinnati, who went out and handled their business in last weekend’s 27-16 victory. The hosts started quickly, scoring the first seventeen points of the afternoon over three successive drives, with Mixon rushing for a short touchdown (coupled with a coin toss celebration that will cost him much more than a quarter) and the aforementioned Burrow hitting Chase in the left corner of the end zone for a 26-yard strike. The visitors would finally get on the board midway through the second quarter, but on their next possession, (Pro-Bowl Defensive End) Trey Hendrickson strip-sacked Tyler Huntley on the goal line, with (Rookie Edge-Rusher) pouncing on the pigskin in the end zone for another score shortly before halftime. Taylor’s outfit released the pressure in the second half, offering just one drive of more than nine yards, though it would be enough to earn their eighth consecutive victory. In the end, the Bengals amassed just 257 total yards, with the bulk of that production coming in the first half, though didn’t need any more than that as Anarumo’s Defense forced FOUR turnovers, two of which leading directly to touchdowns. (Safety) Jessie Bates and (Nickelback) Mike Hilton each logged an interception, while Hendrickson was responsible for half of his side’s four sacks, with a pair of forced fumbles along the way. Burrow played longer than most expected, completing 25-of-42 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown, though he did lose a fumble, while Chase hauled in eight of twelve targets for eighty-six yards and that touchdown. Looking to tonight’s affair, the Bengals have won three of their last four meetings with the Ravens, with Burrow owning a 3-2 record against his division rivals, completing 67.0% of his passes for an average of 311.2 yards on a healthy 7.57 net yards per attempt with ten total touchdowns in comparison to five turnovers. From a betting perspective, Cincinnati has really been on a tear of late, covering the spread in eight of their last ten games overall, while matching that record over their last ten outings contested at Paycor Stadium. Last weekend’s victory snapped a four-game winning streak against the spread, though that was just the third time that they’ve failed to cover the line in their last ten games when favored against the Ravens. Furthermore, Taylor’s troops have covered the spread in seven straight contests when favored between 3.5-10 points and are 5-0-1 in their last six home games when favored versus a team with a winning record, which is the case tonight. With that said, the Wild Card has historically been difficult for them, for these cats have posted a 1-6-1 record against the spread in this round of the playoffs. On the injury front, the aforementioned Cappa has been ruled out for this rubber match with a nagging leg injury, while (veteran Cornerback) Eli Apple and (Edge-Rusher) Sam Hubbard are both expected to play with respective neck and calf maladies. Given that Collins is out of the rest of the campaign with a torn ACL and MCL, Cappa’s absence becomes all the more crucial to the ongoing protection of Burrow.