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Mike Preston

Mike Preston: Rest will pay off for Ravens when push comes to shove vs. Bengals | COMMENTARY

When the Ravens ruled out several starters before Sunday’s game in Cincinnati, it made the wild-card round rematch against the Bengals next week even more exciting.

The Ravens (10-7) haven’t been one of the NFL’s most entertaining teams this season, but their rubber match against the Bengals (12-4) should at least have Baltimore fans drinking a lot of purple Kool-Aid and eating some popcorn in anticipation.

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The Bengals beat the Ravens, 27-16, on Sunday to lock up the No. 3 seed, but the score should have been a lot worse since the Ravens were without quarterback Lamar Jackson, tight end Mark Andrews, running back J.K. Dobbins and right guard Kevin Zeitler.

The Ravens hung around long enough to make a decent showing, even though the Bengals went conservative offensively in the second half, probably because they didn’t want to give away too much.

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Despite winning its last eight games, Cincinnati looked beatable Sunday. It should see a different Ravens team next week when it gets closer to full strength.

In fact, coach John Harbaugh made a great move by resting some of his players to prepare for the playoffs, which is win or go home.

“We’re looking forward to the playoffs now,” Harbaugh said. “That’s our next step, into the playoffs. That’s what we’ve been preparing for and we’re looking forward to our opportunity. Everybody is 0-0 going forward. We can’t wait to get started Monday probably; Tuesday is our first work day and we’ll be rolling.”

The rest will come in handy. Dobbins has been working on strengthening his hamstrings and Andrews has been slowed by an assortment of injuries. Veterans like cornerback Marcus Peters, outside linebackers Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive lineman Calais Campbell have proven they can’t play many games in a row without missing time because of injuries.

So, you sit Peters and Zeitler and maybe cut down on some of the repetitions for Pierre-Paul and Houston. If the Ravens are going to make it to the Super Bowl, these guys are going to have to play three straight games against the best teams in the AFC. Any time off for injuries will be a significant loss, so it was wise to sit some of them Sunday.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) fumbles as he is tackled by Ravens linebacker David Ojabo (90) during the second half of Sunday's game in Cincinnati.

And then there is the Jackson factor. He has missed the last five games with a sprained knee, but he’ll play this week. The word is already out, and Jackson will probably be out parading around the practice field as if he is here to save the Ravens’ season. If he does, good for him.

If he doesn’t, blame it on the rust and inactivity.

But Jackson is only part of the story. These teams don’t like each other, which is why there was a lot of chirping on both sides for what was a glorified preseason game. It goes back to 2020, when then-Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink’' Martindale criticized the Bengals for a fourth-quarter field goal to avoid a shutout in a 27-3 victory by Baltimore.

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Martindale later said some uncomplimentary things about Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who then torched the Ravens for 82 points and more than 1,000 passing yards in two lopsided Cincinnati victories last year. The Bengals kept throwing long passes late in those games, which irritated the Ravens.

Baltimore beat Cincinnati, 19-17, in Week 5 to split the season series. On Sunday, there was still a lot of trash talking going on. It was evident in the fourth quarter when Bengals offensive lineman Carman Jackson blocked Ravens outside linebacker Tyus Bowser into Baltimore’s sideline, sparking a shoving match. Ravens fans love to talk about the Steelers rivalry, but these Bengals matchups are juicier.

When running back Joe Mixon scored a touchdown in the first quarter, he pulled a coin from his glove and flipped it in reference to league officials declaring that if the Ravens had won Sunday, the team hosting the playoff game would be decided by a coin flip, even though Cincinnati had a higher winning percentage.

The Bengals came into the game with a chip on their shoulders.

“It’s a division opponent that we know very well; they know us very well,” Campbell said. “There’s a lot of passion behind the ballgame. That’s what it’s all about. It’s win or go home.

“Knowing we’re coming back here again definitely played a role in just the mentality, establishing who we are, who we’re going to be. The crowd was intense; they were wild. The crowd was talking a little trash and stuff, and it’s just like, ‘I love the environment.’ It’s all or nothing. We’ll go out here, we’ll prepare the best we can [and] come out here next week and try to win the ball game.”

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You’ve got to love this stuff. If the Ravens can’t get up for this game, they need to check some pulses. The additional rest will pay off because they had nine players on the injury list this week compared to just two for Cincinnati.

But that’s all meaningless. It’s on. It’s one thing when a player celebrates because he makes a great run or a catch over an opponent, but it’s different when a player drives you into your own sideline and into the bench area.

That’s offensive. That’s personal and embarrassing. The Bengals were sending a message.

Now the Ravens have to answer it.


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