Thursday night, the Cincinnati Bengals need to do what feels like the near-impossible to avoid falling into a season-altering hole.
There, they enter hostile territory to take on the 7-3 Baltimore Ravens just a few days removed from last Sunday’s loss to the Houston Texans. At stake is not just losing two in a row — it’s falling to 5-5, 0-3 in the AFC North and 1-5 in the AFC.
And the short-week hurdle thrown out by the NFL is readily apparent on the injury report. While star defensive end Trey Hendrickson is surprisingly good to go, we don’t know how effective he can be after suffering what was reported as a hyperextended knee last Sunday. Wideout Tee Higgins and defensive end Sam Hubbard will miss the game.
That’s not to say the Ravens aren’t suffering either. They just lost a heartbreaker to the Browns to ruin a four-game streak of their own and starting offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley is out, while top cornerback Marlon Humphrey is doubtful.
Making it harder to get a read on this matchup is that this is a rematch. Back in Week 2, the Bengals lost 27-24 while Joe Burrow and Lamar Jackson both threw a pair of scores. But Burrow’s calf injury greatly limited his mobility and that was when the playbook was severely dialed back before the bye week.
So, while the Bengals figure to be better offensively this time out, keep in mind in Week 2 that it was Higgins who led the team with eight catches for 89 yards and two scores. Baltimore’s defense has been stellar this season, limiting Houston to nine points, Cleveland to three in one of their two matches, Tennessee to 16, Detroit to six and Seattle to three.
If anything, it feels like this one will come down to the defense for the Bengals. Lou Anarumo had the big task on a short week of fixing his unit’s tackling issues, likely stressing bringing down the ball-carrier is more important than trying to get a turnover.
Easier said than done against Jackson, though. The Ravens passer has won seven of eight starts against the Bengals over the course of his career, averaging 79.5 rushing yards per encounter. If he breaks free like that, Baltimore shouldn’t have any problems at home.
Still, Burrow’s offense should produce, as this is his fifth encounter with Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who heavily relies on never blitzing and keeping two-deep shells. By now, it’s safe to presume Burrow will be ready for it.
The first quarter is the massive one to watch and it might decide the game outright. Sounds wild, but the Ravens have outscored teams 79-16 in the opening frame this year, while the Bengals have scored 55-34 in that quarter and have scored a touchdown on their last five game-opening drives.
Here’s where it gets interesting — the Ravens have trailed for less than 30 minutes this season, but they’ve lost in overtime, on a late touchdown and a late field goal. If Anarumo’s defense can adapt and Burrow’s offense remains consistent, sprinkle in some serious desperation for the visiting team and this one could come down to Evan McPherson.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Ravens 24