Bengals-Ravens Preview

The Associated Press

As the Cincinnati Bengals target a fourth straight playoff appearance, the first challenge is to end their struggles in Baltimore.

The reigning AFC North champions look to avoid a fifth consecutive road defeat to a Ravens team minus its star running back for the first of two straight games Sunday.

Cincinnati is riding its most successful stretch in team history, but each postseason has been a short-lived experience. Its 27-10 loss to San Diego marked the third straight exit in the wild-card round.

''We have to win one in the playoffs,'' owner Mike Brown said. ''It sticks in our craw. First, we have to get the opportunity again.

''That is a long, hard road. We have a tough schedule, we respect our opponents, we take nothing for granted. But in our hearts - in my heart, too - I think we stack up OK and we are anxious to prove we are going to be a successful team again.''

The Bengals will be tested immediately in Baltimore, where they last won 17-14 in 2009. Last season, Andy Dalton threw a desperation 51-yard pass that was tipped and then caught by A.J. Green in the end zone to force overtime. However, Cincinnati lost 20-17.

''It's a great opportunity for us to have another growing step,'' left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. ''We've talked about it over the years. We've had this little step here or that little step there where this team's continued to improve. But we haven't won in Baltimore."

Dalton's passing yards and touchdown totals have increased in each of his three seasons. His 33 TDs in 2013 trailed only Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, and his 4,293 yards ranked seventh.

However, he's completed 52.6 percent of his passes with three TDs, seven interceptions and been sacked 11 times while going 0-3 at Baltimore. His 52.2 passer rating in last year's loss was the second-lowest of his career.

''It's big,'' said Dalton, who threw a career-high 20 interceptions in 2013. ''The way the schedule is, they start us off right off the bat with a division opponent. So it does set the tone. It really shows the expectations of what we have here.''

Despite their struggles in Baltimore, the Bengals have reason to be confident.

Green set career bests with 98 catches and 1,426 yards while recording 11 TDs for the second consecutive season. His 260 receptions are the most in NFL history for any player in his first three seasons.

After amassing 1,209 total yards and scoring eight touchdowns as a rookie, Giovani Bernard is the featured back, and bruising rookie Jeremy Hill is also expected to have an impact.

Defensively, Vontaze Burfict earned a three-year contract extension worth a maximum of $20.05 million after recording a league-high 171 tackles for a defense that ranked seventh overall, allowing 282.8 yards per game, and second in passing at 159.2 yards per contest.

Baltimore won the North in 2011 and 2012 and reached the playoffs in five straight seasons prior to finishing 8-8 and missing the postseason a year after winning the Super Bowl.

''You look at last season - it's over, it's said, it's done with, it didn't go the way we wanted,'' defensive end Chris Canty said. ''We didn't end up in the postseason. Ultimately, we want to give ourselves an opportunity to compete for championships around here.

''We put that behind us, we try to focus on what we can do to improve, so we can be where we want to be at the end of this regular season.''

Baltimore starts the season without Ray Rice, who earned a surprisingly short NFL-imposed, two-game suspension for a domestic violence incident involving his then-fiancee. Though commissioner Roger Goodell recently admitted he was too lenient on Rice, the three-time Pro Bowl running back has been remorseful.

''No football games and no money was going to determine what I have to live with the rest of my life," he said at a July 31 news conference. ''So whether it was two games, four games, six games, eight games, I was going to own my actions and be a man about it and take whatever was given to me.''

When Rice returns, he'll try to bounce back from a 2013 season in which he dealt with a hip injury and rushed for 660 yards and four TDs - his lowest totals since recording 454 and no touchdowns as a rookie in 2008.

Backup Bernard Pierce was not much better, gaining 436 yards and scoring twice, but will start Sunday.

Baltimore's 3.1 yards per carry last season were the lowest in the NFL, and its 1,328 rushing yards were the worst in team history.

Former Houston coach Gary Kubiak hopes to improve those numbers in his first season as offensive coordinator, and receiver Steve Smith arrives after 13 seasons catching 836 passes for 12,197 yards and 67 TDs with. Carolina.

Smith provides another target for Joe Flacco, who completed 59.0 percent of his passes while throwing 19 touchdowns and a career-high 22 interceptions - 10 more than in any of his previous five seasons.

Baltimore selected Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley with the 17th overall pick to reinforce a unit that allowed 134 fourth-quarter points - eight more than it yielded in the first and third combined.

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