By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun
4:14 PM EST, December 29, 2012
RAVENS PASSING GAME: Quarterback Joe Flacco ended a troubling late-season slump by tearing up the New York Giants last week, throwing for 309 yards and two touchdowns to go along with a rushing score. Perhaps the best development for the Ravens was that Flacco didn't turn the ball over and wasn't sacked. Flacco has won four straight games against the Bengals, throwing five touchdowns during that span. The Ravens are 11 points away from setting a franchise record for most points in a season.
BENGALS PASSING GAME: Cincinnati's second-year quarterback Andy Dalton has been shaky lately, turning the ball over seven times over the last four games. During that stretch, he's thrown three touchdown passes and five interceptions. In three career games against the Ravens, Dalton has completed 54 percent of his passes and thrown one touchdown while turning the ball over five times. He still has A.J. Green, who is tied for the AFC lead with 11 touchdowns and is 117 yards short of setting a franchise receiving record.
RAVENS RUNNING GAME: In Week 16 last year in Cincinnati, Ray Rice rushed for 191 yards and two touchdowns to help the Ravens clinch the AFC North. In his past four games against the Bengals, Rice has averaged 110 rushing yards per game and scored seven rushing touchdowns. The Ravens, who rank 15th in the NFL in rushing, are coming off their most productive ground game of the season. Rice and rookie Bernard Pierce combined for 230 rushing yards against the Giants. Pierce and Anthony Allen could get more carries this week to keep Rice fresh for the playoffs.
BENGALS RUNNING GAME: BenJarvus Green-Ellis was held to 14 rushing yards last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but his play down the stretch is a big reason why the Bengals have won six of seven games. Green-Ellis, who rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 against the Ravens, has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in four of his past six games. The Bengals averaged only 93.7 rushing yards per game through their first nine games but have averaged 142.5 yards over their last six.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: The Ravens' offense wasn't the only struggling unit that regained some confidence last week. The Ravens' much-maligned run defense limited the Giants to 67 rushing yards, the second fewest that they have allowed all season. Still, the group is ranked just 24th in the NFL and is allowing 127.9 yards per game on the ground. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe's return last week gave the Ravens a boost. Rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw has improved steadily against the run.
BENGALS RUSH DEFENSE: The Bengals have gone eight straight weeks without allowing a 100-yard rusher, and their run defense ranks eighth in the NFL, surrendering 100.6 yards per game. Undrafted free agent linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who was once considered a Ravens target before a poor final season in college made his draft status plummet, leads the Bengals with 151 tackles. Fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga is also extremely active against the run, and Domata Peko is tough to move inside.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: The Ravens didn't intercept Eli Manning last week, but they sacked him three times and they never gave explosive wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks any room to work. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has maximized the talent with this group and gotten good returns from unheralded performers like cornerbacks Corey Graham, linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive tackle Arthur Jones. Since returning from a biceps injury, Terrell Suggs has three tackles and no sacks in two games.
BENGALS PASS DEFENSE: Leon Hall is a solid cornerback and Adam Jones has played well, but the Bengals' secondary has been vulnerable at times. However, it hasn't always mattered, mainly because os Cincinnati's relentless pass rush. Led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who has 13 sacks, six more than any other NFL interior linemen, the Bengals are second in the NFL with 47 sacks. Defensive end Michael Johnson has a career-high 9 1/2 sacks this season.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: Rookie kicker Justin Tucker didn't make the Pro Bowl, but he has been good on 29-of-31 (93.5 percent) field-goal attempts, and he enters the final week of the regular season with a chance to break the NFL record for field goal percentage by a rookie and set franchise records for field goal percentage and points. Kick returner Jacoby Jones did make the Pro Bowl, and he leads the NFL with a kickoff return average of 32.1 yards.
BENGALS SPECIAL TEAMS: Jones and Brandon Tate have shared punt return duties, though Jones has been the more effective returner, ranking third in the NFL with a 12.5 yard average. Jones has five career punt return scores. Kicker Mike Nugent, who has been inactive the past three games due to a calf injury, has practiced all week. He's 19-of-23 on field-goal attempts this season. If he's still not ready, veteran Josh Brown, who beat the Steelers last week with a 43-yard field goal with four seconds left, would kick.
RAVENS INTANGIBLES: Head coach John Harbaugh has stressed this game's importance all week, even though the Ravens have already clinched the AFC North and a first-round home playoff game and don't necessarily have anything significant to gain with a win. The Ravens have won six straight regular-season finales and 12 of their last 13 games against AFC North foes. The Ravens beat the Bengals 44-13 earlier this season, but that was in Week 1.
BENGALS INTANGIBLES: Cincinnati was just 3-5 at the midpoint of the season, but the Bengals have turned things around to clinch their second straight wild-card berth. They have nothing to gain in the standings with a victory, but coach Marvin Lewis has vowed to play his starters. Lewis is 10-9 in his career against the Ravens but just 3-6 against them in the Harbaugh era. The Bengals are 3-4 at home this season and have dropped four straight games to the Ravens.
PREDICTION: Both coaches have said all the right things about resisting the temptation to rest starters for playoff games next week. But plans can change, especially with a key injury early in the game. The Ravens want to win to force the New England Patriots to win later in the day to secure the No. 3 seed. They also desperately want to continue the offensive rhythm that they found last week against the Giants. Assuming the majority of their starters play throughout, the Ravens should be able to accomplish those things and end the regular season on a positive note.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun