Nickel Package: Five Things to Watch in Ravens vs. Bengals
Aaron Wilson: As the Ravens (10-5) square off with the Cincinnati Bengals (9-6) Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, here's a checklist of key people and areas to watch.
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1. How will the Ravens divide up playing time?
It's a terrific debate with no perfect answer to the question of how to allocate playing time in a relatively meaningless regular-season finale.
The Ravens arguably have more motivation than the Bengals to try to win this game since Cincinnati is locked into the sixth seed regardless of outcome.
The AFC North champion and currently fourth-seeded Ravens can conceivably become the third seed, but need assistance from the Miami Dolphins to accomplish that goal.
A victory by the Dolphins over the AFC East champion New England Patriots combined with a win over the Bengals would allow Baltimore to leapfrog New England to become the third seed in the AFC.
If that happens, then the Ravens would face the Bengals for the third time this season one week later at M&T Bank Stadium.
If New England wins, then Baltimore will host the Indianapolis Colts and square off with former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who has returned to the sidelines after an inspirational battle with leukemia, at home the following week.
Behind the scenes, word has spread that this game could be treated like a glorified preseason game where key players are rested or are on something of a pitch count, with many starters done for the day by the third quarter.
With roster limits, though, it's not realistic to be able to rest everyone who has an injury or is an important player worth protecting for the playoffs.
Here's an educated guess at how the Ravens will handle the inactive list regardless of designation on the injury report:
Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda didn't practice all week because of shoulder, right ankle and knee issues. Getting him healthier for the playoffs is a worthy goal. So, he could be scratched even though he's healthy enough to play.
The same thinking applies for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who has dealt with a sprained right medial collateral ligament for the majority of the season. Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach's right ankle is gimpy and he was in and out of practice this week. If the Ravens want to hold him out, they can do so by inserting one of the tight ends at fullback.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin's bruised left shoulder isn't something he can't play through, but it's questionable whether it makes sense for him to play.
The only probable listings where it might be a good idea to give a player more time to heal are strong safety Bernard Pollard, who just returned to practice this week after missing two games with several damaged ribs, and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has had a limited impact ever since tearing his right biceps against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If the score gets out of hand and the game is decided, both teams are expected to substitute liberally.
With being so banged-up and having lost pivotal players like cornerback Lardarius Webb for the season, the Ravens can't afford to suffer any more serious injuries to key players.
The Bengals are in a similar position to Baltimore, where what's next is more important than what's happening Sunday. Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged the potential awkwardness of how to handle this situation.
"There's probably a degree of difficulty there," Harbaugh said. "I'm not sure really how to really measure that other than the fact that you just always try to do what's best for your team, all things considered. There are a lot of factors involved with that. There's no formula here. What we try to do is do what's best for us to be the best team we can be in the playoffs. Part of that is playing as well as we can this week. We're going to try to win the football game, but we have other considerations to take into account as well.
"Some of that has to do with different guys' health, and there are some domino effects with that. The No. 1 thing to keep in mind is you have to go play all out to win the football game. You have to. That's the 46 guys who are active. They have to be a part of that because if you don't, this game's not made for that. That's what we will be doing."