The Cincinnati Bengals enter the playoffs on the quest for another Super Bowl run, and an AFC North foe, the Baltimore Ravens, visit for a wild-card matchup.
And while it’s a rehash of the Week 18 season finale, it’s a good example of the chesslike maneuverings that go into the sport.
Joe Burrow and the offense looked erratic at best in that 27-16 win while relying on four turnovers to slip past and secure home-field advantage for the first round of the postseason. But the offense had to deal with a strong Ravens defense and was vanilla as it gets in order not to show their hands before this matchup.
But the same logic applies to the Ravens. They rested key starters like tight end Mark Andrews and running back J.K. Dobbins. It was third-stringer Anthony Brown under center and he went a brutal 19-of-44. Now the Ravens will open up the playbook on both sides of the ball Sunday night, including starting Tyler Huntley and Brown at quarterback.
It’s a little easy to handwave this matchup off as a case of the Bengals just getting back to the normal playbook and Burrow won’t look that rough twice. But the Ravens defense is complex, ranked third by allowing just 18.5 points per game and star linebacker Roquan Smith is a massive problem, as is breakout star rookie Kyle Hamilton. They’ll disguise coverages and blitzes well and show new looks.
That disclaimer aside, it is hard to ignore the fact the Ravens haven’t scored more than 17 points in a game since Lamar Jackson’s injury all the way back in Week 13. Dobbins is an elite running back, but the Bengals have shuttered the likes of Derrick Henry this year with emphasis, so it’s a matter of that trend continuing and not giving up big plays.
More than anything, it likely just comes down to turnover differential. If the offensive line now starting Max Scharping and Hakeem Adeniji on the right side can help limit turnovers, that means no points scored by the Ravens defense or short fields for the Ravens offense.
On the topic of Burrow and the offense having another bad game — don’t bank on it. Going into Week 18, the Bengals were coming off the short week from the Monday night game that wound up a no-contest and amid the trauma and chaos was the reality the team wasn’t even 100 percent sure who it would play or if at all in the season’s final week. Then, they gutted the offense down to basics. The Bengals lose this playoff game if Burrow’s missing on touchdown throws and his wideouts drop others again, but it’s hard to imagine any of that occurs now that things have been back to as normal as possible.
Realistically, the Bengals defense should be able to adapt on the fly to different packages. Huntley is a good rusher who hasn’t thrown much lately due to a shoulder injury and Brown has a booming arm. Keep contain on any big plays and trickery and it’s a matter of shuttering Dobbins.
But make no mistake — most playoff games are close affairs regardless. It certainly doesn’t feel safe to predict a massive blowout like the Bengals had over the Ravens twice last year. John Harbaugh’s Ravens are 6-0 in road wild-card games for a reason and these divisional foes know each other well. This one might only break open late on a turnover as the Ravens try to keep pace.
Gut feeling though? A few forced turnovers by the Bengals defense gets it done, Burrow is back to sharp play and the overdue Ja’Marr Chase game arrives (with Hayden Hurst getting revenge on his former team notably, too).
A win would mean the Bengals advance to the divisional round to either play the Bills on the road or hosting the Jaguars at home.
Prediction: Bengals 30, Ravens 17