Ravens run offense vs. Bengals run defense: The Bengals catch a major break not having to face Jamal Lewis, who has gained 100 yards in each of his seven starts against them. Chester Taylor, Lewis' replacement, has averaged 76 yards rushing in his three starts this season. The offensive line has struggled to open the same holes from a year ago, as the Ravens have not produced a 100-yard rusher since Oct. 10. The Ravens also lose some punch in the running game with physical right tackle Orlando Brown (knee) being replaced by the more athletic Ethan Brooks. Cincinnati's troubles on run defense, which ranks 30th in the 32-team NFL, has allowed opponents to control the clock (31:21 to the Bengals' 28:39).
Ravens pass offense vs. Bengals pass defense: The key for quarterback Kyle Boller has been having enough time to throw. The Ravens haven't done a solid job in protecting Boller lately and encounter a Cincinnati defense that has 15 sacks in its past five games. Boller still has made it a priority to protect the ball, throwing one interception in his past 188 passes. The Bengals have been opportunistic this season with 27 take-aways, which is third in the NFL behind Indianapolis (29) and Seattle (28). The return of Ravens tight end Todd Heap, who has missed the past nine games with a sprained ankle, could be huge even if it's for limited snaps. Last week, Cincinnati allowed Cleveland's tight ends to combine for 12 receptions for 149 yards and three touchdowns.
Bengals run offense vs. Ravens run defense: Holding running backs under 100 yards is no longer a certainty with the Ravens. They have allowed backs to reach that mark in two of the past three games. It's a strong test for inside linebackers Ray Lewis and Ed Hartwell against Cincinnati running back Rudi Johnson, who runs mostly between the tackles. Johnson is coming off a 202-yard rushing effort against the Browns, the second-best single-game performance in the league this season. Against the Ravens in Week 3, Johnson gained 98 yards on 23 carries. Ravens nose tackle Kelly Gregg will have a tough task in the middle against center Rich Braham, an excellent drive blocker.
Bengals pass offense vs. Ravens pass defense: Fourth in the NFL in pass defense, the Ravens have held the past four starting quarterbacks they've met under 175 yards. In that span, the Ravens have allowed one passing touchdown while making four interceptions. Cornerback Chris McAlister, who has been bothered by a neck stinger, will start and match up most of the game with Chad Johnson, the Bengals' leading receiver (65 catches, four touchdowns). With nickel back Deion Sanders (toe) out, Corey Fuller will play in nickel situations. In his previous meeting with the Ravens, quarterback Carson Palmer was picked off three times and held to his season-low passer rating (43.4).
Special teams: This matches two of the most accurate kickers in the NFL this season in the Ravens' Matt Stover (18-for-19 on field goals) and the Bengals' Shayne Graham (22-for-24). The punting game is just as close, with the Ravens' Nick Murphy (42.9-yard average) and Cincinnati's Kyle Larson (42.7). The Ravens' B.J. Sams has averaged more than 9 yards a punt return just once in his past six games. Cincinnati's Keiwan Ratliff broke a 49-yard punt return last week.
Intangibles: The Ravens have banked their playoff hopes on winning their last three home games, starting with the Bengals today. A couple of streaks weigh heavily in the Ravens' favor. The Ravens have beaten Cincinnati the past seven times in Baltimore. The Bengals haven't beaten a team with a winning record on the road since 1990.
Prediction: The absence of Jamal Lewis will make this one closer than expected. But, with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance, the Ravens will survive ... barely.
RAVENS, 17-16 - Jamison Hensley