For the third straight season the Ravens (8-7) will travel to Paul Brown Stadium for the regular season finale. After enduring a savage 41-7 beat down at home last week against the Patriots, Baltimore is in a “Must-Win” situation against the Bengals if it wants to secure the sixth seed in the playoffs. In addition to a victory they’ll also need help with losses from other playoff contenders such as Miami and/or San Diego.
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Certainly it won’t be easy as the Bengals are undefeated at home this season and could rise to a Number Two seed with a Patriots loss. So they will have plenty to play for as well.
Can the Ravens pull off the upset on the road and give themselves a chance to get back into the tournament?
Let’s take a look at some of the important match-ups for Sunday’s game:
Ravens Cornerback Jimmy Smith vs. Bengals Wide Receiver A.J. Green
Smith turned in a solid performance against one of the league’s best in Calvin Johnson two weeks ago. This week Smith has the unenviable task of shadowing another dynamic playmaker in Green. His size and athletic ability are always tough to account for and you have to wonder if Dean Pees will allow Smith to follow Green all afternoon instead of switching duties with the smaller Lardarius Webb as they did back in Week Ten in Baltimore.
Ravens Kick Returner Jacoby Jones vs. Bengals Punter Shawn Powell
If the Ravens are to gain a win this weekend they will need a big day from the speedy Jones. He helps lead a Ravens return unit that is one of the best in the NFL and a stumbling offense could use good field position or even a score to help the Ravens cause.
Powell is in his second game as a Bengal after replacing former punter Kevin Huber who was knocked out for the season. He was cut by the Bills in October after a disastrous game against Cleveland where the Browns returned one punt for a Touchdown and almost had a second. The Ravens could use that kind of help in Cincinnati.
Ravens Outside Linebackers (Terrell Suggs/Elvis Dumervil) vs. Bengals Offensive Tackles (Anthony Collins/Andre Smith)
In Week Ten, the Ravens pass rush was fantastic as they pressured Quarterback Andy Dalton 19 times and registered 5 sacks en route to a 20-17 Overtime win. Pressure is usually the key with Dalton who has struggled in many of his meetings with his AFC North rivals. However the pass rush has been quieted as of late with Suggs finally getting his first in almost six games against the Patriots last week and Dumervil has been dealing with ankle issues from Thanksgiving. Now is as good as time as ever to find their stride.
Normally Pro Bowler Andrew Whitworth would patrol Dalton’s blind side but he has since been moved inside to Guard due to an injury by Clint Bolling. Collins has picked up the slack nicely and hasn’t allowed a hit or a pressure in six games. The Bengals line has given up the 4th fewest sacks in the league and it’s a big reason why Dalton and the Cincinnati offense have really been rolling. Baltimore’s defense must find a way to disrupt the flow this weekend.
Ravens Running Back Ray Rice vs. Bengals Middle Linebacker Vontaze Burfict
It’s been a tough season for Rice, who has fought through multiple injuries and a shaky line to compile his worst season as a starter. In fact the entire running game will most likely finish as the worst in Ravens franchise history since 1996. Establishing a running game will difficult against a top defense but they will still need to try and keep the Bengals honest to set up play-action. Rice has still shown an ability as a receiver and should be used as such on screens to counteract an aggressive front.
Burfict leads the league in tackles (157) and has developed into a solid pro. There is a question about his availability as he suffered a concussion last week and was out of practice all week until Friday. He is listed as Questionable. The Ravens will need to do their best to keep him away from Rice tomorrow afternoon.
Ravens Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell vs. Bengals Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer
If the Ravens season ends after this week one of the storylines will be the fact that the team simply couldn’t score enough points most games. A struggling run game, poor red zone percentage, short yardage woes, and too many turnovers have plagued the unit in 2013. In his first full season as coordinator the fan base isn’t pleased with Caldwell’s performance and he’ll need to dial up a game plan to contain Zimmer’s “A Gap” pressure (As pointed out by Dan Bryden here) and use some quick passing to set up big plays.