Why the upgraded Bengals are (not) ready to challenge the Ravens for AFC North superiority – Baltimore Ravens Blog

October 20, 2021

When the Baltimore Ravens host the Cincinnati Bengals (1 pm ET, CBS) on Sunday, Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow headline a showdown of the two best teams in the AFC North. But the battle for first place will be fought by teams competing at different levels in recent years.

Since Zac Taylor became coach of the Bengals in 2019, Baltimore has outscored Cincinnati 137-36. That’s a 101-point differential, an average margin of victory of 25.2 points for the Ravens, over the last four games.

But the Ravens (5-1) aren’t thinking about the past when they face a Bengals (4-2) team that has already matched last season’s win total.

“The whole team is one of the best teams in the National Football League right now,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “There’s no question about it, just watch them play. They’ve done a great job across the board. In terms of how they’re playing this year, that’s all we look at. There’s no comparison to anything else.”

Sunday meeting features:

  • The two best passers in the AFC North. Jackson ranks eighth in the NFL with 1,686 passing yards and Burrow tenth with 1,540.

  • The best scoring offenses in the division. The Ravens are seventh in the league with 28.3 points per game and the Bengals 11th with 24.7 points.

  • The tightest defenders in the division. Cincinnati is fifth in the NFL with 18.5 points per game allowed and Baltimore seventh with 20.5 points.

“We have our hands full,” Harbaugh said. “Whoever wins will be the division leader at the midpoint of the season. So we get it.”

Are the Bengals ready to take the next step and defeat the team with the best record in the AFC? Or will Jackson and company follow and achieve their sixth consecutive victory? ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Bengals reporter Ben Baby break it down.

Hensley: Ben, we’ve seen the Ravens dominate the Bengals in 2019 and 2020. Do you think Sunday’s game will play out differently?

Baby: Could. This is the Bengals’ best team in Taylor’s three seasons, and it’s not even close. Cincinnati has spent the past two drafts and offseason committing to the steps necessary for a quick rebuild. The Bengals have recruited key skill players, including Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, and have added important pieces in free agency like defensive tackle DJ Reader and defensive end Trey Hendrickson.

The Bengals (4-2) have done most of their damage against some inferior opponents, no doubt. But Cincinnati was one of those teams as recently as last season.

The Bengals have beefed up their defense to be much better against the run; Think of Jackson’s most outstanding TD of 2019 in which he put a couple of players on the spin cycle. And that could make this weekend’s game closer.

With the Bengals showing marked improvement, can the Ravens-Bengals be the main rivalry in the AFC North?

Hensley: It would surprise people if the Ravens-Bengals became the new Ravens-Steelers. The expectation was that the Cleveland Browns would be Baltimore’s main competition for the division title. But this is a quarterback-driven league, and the Ravens and Bengals clearly have the best quarterbacks in the division. As long as the Bengals can build a supporting cast around Burrow like the Ravens have done with Jackson, these teams could be battling for the top spot for the next decade.

Although these Ravens-Bengals games have not been close, they have had some memorable moments. There was the Jackson spinning move in 2019. There was also the Bengals kicking a late field goal in Baltimore last season to avoid a shutout, drawing the ire of Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. All this series needs is to have something significant at stake, which can start on Sunday.

Ben, the Ravens were a .500 team before Jackson became a starter midway through the 2018 season. He has led them to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. How has Burrow changed the attitude and culture in Cincinnati?

Baby: Burrow has transformed everything about Cincinnati and has been the focal point of the rebuilding process. Everything has apparently been geared around the top pick in the 2020 draft.

Burrow’s aggressiveness has been mirrored by the coaching staff, who are not afraid to trust analytics and take risks in unorthodox situations. Cincinnati has also built its offense around Burrow, which produced a significant ripple effect.

After Burrow suffered his season-ending knee injury in 2020, the Bengals made some modest but beneficial improvements to the offensive line. More importantly, they selected Chase, Burrow’s former LSU teammate. That synergy has produced great plays, as Burrow has shown a confidence in Chase that feels unique.

What makes this game between the Bengals and Ravens fascinating is that Cincinnati appears to be on the verge of joining Baltimore as one of the best teams in a competitive AFC North. But which franchise is best positioned for future success? Jamison, I have a hunch what your answer is, and it’s not bad.

Hensley: It’s hard to bet against a team with Jackson, who is 35-8 as a starter. Even with 16 players on injured reserve, the Ravens matched their best start in franchise history. Baltimore has a solid foundation for the future, signing extensions to cornerback Marlon Humphrey and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley. The Ravens are also continually among the best in the draft under general manager Eric DeCosta.

But the challenge comes when Jackson is no longer on his rookie contract. The Ravens won a playoff game after making Joe Flacco one of the highest paid players in the NFL. The difficulty is that huge quarterback contracts take up a large chunk of the salary cap. The difference with Jackson is that you don’t have to surround him with big-name free agents to be a championship contender. Jackson elevates the talent around him because he’s a huge focus on defense. Jackson puts the “V” in MVP. The Ravens have also been preparing for Jackson’s costly extension by racking up draft picks. Baltimore has 10 picks in the 2022 draft.

Jackson is 5-0 against the Bengals and has done a lot of damage against the Cincinnati defense. If the Bengals want to turn this into a rivalry, they will need to find some answers for him. How do you think the Bengals will try to stop Jackson?

Baby: There are a couple of options: use the offense to keep Baltimore off the field or find a way to cover the middle of the field and keep Jackson contained. It will probably take a combination of both to stop Jackson, and even that is asking a lot. Right now, he is playing as an MVP candidate.

And that’s why, if we have to choose which franchise is best equipped to rule the AFC North in the future, it has to be Baltimore. Burrow could go on to make a very good, if not excellent, quarterback. But Jackson is playing at that level and somehow he just keeps improving.

The other factor, not QB, also goes back to why the Bengals selected Burrow. They weren’t just looking for a long-term quarterback. Cincinnati needed a franchise facelift. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in more than 30 years, and outside of the hot streak between 2011 and 2015, they’ve struggled to make the postseason.

Cincinnati has a lot to prove. The Bengals must show that they can continue to adapt and that they have the ability to truly build a franchise capable of doing what Baltimore and Pittsburgh have accomplished in recent decades.

That’s what makes this game and this season so important. Cincinnati finally has the team to fight for a division title and be a good franchise going forward. The appearance of the Bengals against Baltimore will show us what the battle for the AFC North will be like in the coming years.

Jamison, how do you think Sunday will play out?

Hensley: It’s hard to predict the Bengals will hold Jackson back until they actually do. Jackson has beaten Cincinnati with his arm, throwing eight touchdown passes in five games. He has beaten the Bengals with his legs, rushing for 436 yards.

The Ravens defense has also had the Bengals’ number. Baltimore has gone 10 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown to Cincinnati. The Bengals had two field goals in two games against the Ravens last year. The Ravens strengthen their grip on the division’s top spot with a 34-24 victory.

Ben, what is your prediction for this one?

Baby: This will be Burrow’s second game against Martindale, whom Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan praised earlier in the week while wondering how Wink isn’t a head coach given the success of that defense.

This game will be about Burrow vs. Wink. The Ravens are giving up 82.0 rushing yards per game, the third-lowest total in the NFL. Teams have resorted to passing the ball to beat Baltimore.

Interestingly, the Bengals defense is actually statistically better than Baltimore’s defense. However, this will be the biggest test for Cincinnati on both sides of the ball. And Baltimore gets the go-ahead for me. Ravens 24, Bengals 13.