The Baltimore Ravens have piled up some big wins this season, knocking off the only two AFC teams with records superior to their own - including a season sweep of their most bitter rival.
That’s what makes it all the more difficult to explain their failures against some of the league’s lightweights.
That class no longer includes the Cincinnati Bengals, who will try to keep the host Ravens reeling from their latest shocking loss Sunday in a matchup that will give the winner a share of first place in the AFC North.
Baltimore (6-3) opened its season with a 35-7 win over Pittsburgh, began October with comfortable home victories over the New York Jets and AFC South-leading Houston, then came away with a critical 23-20 road comeback win over the Steelers on Nov. 6.
Just as the Ravens seemed to be establishing themselves as the AFC team to beat, however, they fell apart against a lesser opponent. As in a loss to Tennessee that followed the first Pittsburgh win, and a defeat to Jacksonville that came after a rout of the Texans, Baltimore came out flat Sunday and fell 22-17 at Seattle to drop back into a second-place tie with Cincinnati.
“If we’re claiming to be that team, we’ve got to come out and play week to week. It can’t be elite one week and then unnecessary roughness the next week. It’s got to be every time.”
Bouncing back surely will be harder if Ray Lewis(notes) can’t play. He hasn’t practiced due to a toe injury and is not expected to take the field, though coach John Harbaugh refused to rule out his star linebacker.
“Ray has had shoulders dislocated and he’s done 35 push-ups on the sidelines to prove that he can go,” Harbaugh said. “He’s had hamstrings that have torn off the bone because he went ahead when he should have been gone.”
His absence would be a welcome sight for the Bengals (6-3), who remain in search of a signature win. They missed a chance to get one last Sunday against Pittsburgh, a matchup which they entered with a five-game winning streak but against teams with a current combined record of 17-29.
“We went toe-to-toe with them,” said rookie receiver A.J. Green(notes), who caught one of Dalton’s two touchdown passes but left after hyperextending his knee. “They have a great defense, but we belong in that league.”
Despite hanging with 7-3 Pittsburgh, the Bengals came out of the game with more than just a key division loss. Green said Wednesday his injury will make him a game-time decision against the Ravens, while star cornerback Leon Hall(notes) is done for the season after tearing his Achilles’ tendon.
Cincinnati is hoping its secondary depth, with Nate Clements(notes) and Kelly Jennings(notes) - who is now in a starting role - combined with second-year corner Brandon Ghee(notes) and Pacman Jones, can step up.
Jones hopes to return this week after missing two games with a hamstring injury.
“I learned this a long time ago,” secondary coach Kevin Coyle told the Bengals’ official website. “You don’t dwell on the guys who aren’t playing, you focus on the guys you have to play with.”
With Hall out, Joe Flacco(notes) and the Ravens offense figure to take even more chances through the air - particularly considering Cincinnati has the NFL’s second-best run defense at 86.8 yards per game.
One look at Flacco’s numbers against the Bengals, though, might make Baltimore consider a game plan that features plenty of running back Ray Rice(notes). Flacco has two touchdown passes and nine interceptions while being sacked 11 times and posting a 48.2 passer rating in his past four games - three losses - against Cincinnati.
Flacco threw a career-high 52 times in Seattle, though much of that total stemmed from the Ravens playing from behind the entire game.
“In the end, we definitely want to have more runs,” Harbaugh said. “That’s indicative of having the lead, having more plays, especially early in the game. But the way the game went, we had to throw it.”
The Ravens defense has allowed 8.2 yards per pass attempt the past three weeks after surrendering 4.7 during the previous three games.
That’s a number Reed and Baltimore’s secondary will be anxious to see drop, but despite last week’s rough fourth quarter, Dalton has rarely been rattled. He’s thrown eight touchdown passes and been sacked twice in his last four games.
Dalton’s 14 TDs through nine games are the most for a rookie since the AFL-NFL merger.
“Their quarterback is doing a great job at managing the offense,” Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s got good vision, he’s got good poise in the pocket. He’s mobile enough where he can get out of trouble.”
The Ravens have won six straight and 14 of 15 at home, including a 13-7 win over the Bengals on Jan. 2 in which they forced five turnovers.
Baltimore, though, has averaged three turnovers over its last eight games versus Cincinnati.