The Cincinnati Bengals are looking to their young duo of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green to help build on last year’s trip to the postseason, and the teams will begin their respective quests Monday night in Baltimore.
The Ravens are the only team to make the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, and they’ve recorded 49 wins during that stretch including the postseason.
Baltimore, though, fell short of the Super Bowl in each of those years, reaching the AFC title game twice and losing in the divisional round two times.
Last year’s failure was particularly painful, as they took a four-point lead into the fourth quarter of the AFC championship but fell 23-20 after the recently released Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal in the final seconds.
“When you look at the Ravens, we’ve been close every year,” Rice said. “I think it’s just time for us to get over that hump now, and we have the pieces to do it.”
Rice had career highs of 1,364 rushing and 704 receiving yards in 2011 to help Baltimore capture its first AFC North title since 2006. The Ravens clinched the division when he ran for 191 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-16 win at Cincinnati on Jan. 1.
Flacco threw for more than 3,600 yards and at least 20 TDs for the third consecutive season but posted a career-low completion percentage of 57.6.
The Ravens may need a more accurate performance from the fifth-year quarterback as their vaunted defense ages. The unit is consistently one of the best in the NFL, but star linebacker Ray Lewis - the only remaining active player from Baltimore’s 2000 Super Bowl-winning team - is entering his 17th season, while safety Ed Reed is going into his 11th.
The Ravens also likely won’t have Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs until November due to a torn right Achilles tendon. Suggs had a career-high 14 sacks in 2011.
“It’s definitely tough without Suggs. It’s definitely a difference,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “But that’s on everyone to pick up the slack not only the defense, but us as well.”
Cincinnati will try to take advantage of Suggs’ absence as it looks to snap a three-game skid in the series and earn its first win in three games in Baltimore.
The Bengals will also be trying to take their first step toward ending a maddening trend. They haven’t posted back-to-back winning records since 1981 and ’82 - the latter being a strike-shortened season.
“That’s definitely the next challenge,” offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “And what does that take? It takes being a consistent team every week and playing our style no matter who we play. That’s what it’s going to take for us to take the next step.”
Dalton and Green, who both made the Pro Bowl as rookies, will try to end that dubious streak after a 9-7 season. Green, the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, finished with 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns while Dalton, a second-rounder, threw for 3,398 yards and 20 TDs with 13 interceptions.
The duo, though, faced increasing scrutiny from defenses and that helped lead to losses in six of the final nine games, including a 31-10 playoff defeat to Houston.
Dalton was held to fewer than 200 yards in four consecutive games during that stretch and Green was limited to 60 or fewer in four of the final five contests.
“Toward the end of the season, they started rolling coverage to my side a lot. But (now) I’m used to that stuff,” Green said. “Now I just have to be able to execute and not get as frustrated as I did last year about it.”
The Bengals made a major change in their ground attack, with running back Cedric Benson leaving for Green Bay after topping 1,000 yards in three straight seasons.
They brought in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had 667 yards for New England in 2011 after topping 1,000 the previous season, but he’s been among the players who have dealt with injuries during the preseason.
“Hopefully with the injuries we’ve had and the guys that are able to come back, it kind of stops the floodgates per se. Hopefully we’re done for the year and everybody stays healthy and people can come back,” said center Kyle Cook, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday.
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, a first-round pick in 2012, is expected to miss this game as he’s dealing with a bone spur near his knee.