"These two teams in my opinion are the top 2 special teams in football right now," said coach John Harbaugh when talking about the Ravens' next opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
By late Sunday afternoon, the Ravens were talking about maintaining momentum and proper perspective. The Cincinnati Bengals were acknowledging that they needed to "circle the wagons."
Just over six weeks ago, the Bengals opened the season with a 23-16 victory over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. As they prepare to meet again Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium with first place in the AFC North on the line, the two teams are seemingly headed in opposite directions.
After starting 3-0, the Bengals are winless in their last three games and are coming off a 27-0 loss to the Indianapolis Colts that prompted veteran cornerback Terence Newman to say that his team "flat-out got embarrassed."
The Ravens are 5-1 since that loss to the Bengals with four of those victories coming by 20 or more points. When coach John Harbaugh and his players woke up Monday morning, they not only led the AFC North, but they had scored the fourth most points in the NFL while allowing the fewest. In their five wins this season, the Ravens have outscored their opponents, 164-61.
"I like where we're at [but] we've got a long way to go," Harbaugh said Monday. "… We're just beginning. We have talked a lot about that. This is our beginning and next week will be our beginning and the week after that because we start from where we're at. We've got a lot of football left to play. We're not a good enough football team right now to accomplish the things we plan on accomplishing. The ball's in our court."
Enthusiasm was also tempered in the Ravens' locker room after Sunday's 29-7 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, a game that was never really in doubt. Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, who notched his first career safety in the dominating defensive effort, acknowledged Sunday that the Ravens were in a good spot, but it's far too early in the season to be consumed by the standings.
Quarterback Joe Flacco, meanwhile, had already started thinking about the Bengals (3-2-1), a team that has beaten the Ravens in four of the past five meetings in Cincinnati.
"It's tough to not feel good immediately after a win, but obviously, we have everything that we want to do right in front of us," Flacco said. "We just have to go out there and continue to play well. We have a tough opponent [Sunday] that we didn't play necessarily good against, at least for half of a football [game] in the first game. We have to come back out there and prove ourselves. They're a good football team, and they're going to be hungry, and we're there. So it's going to be a tough test - can't wait for it."
Asked Monday how different the Ravens are now than they were in the first meeting with Cincinnati, Harbaugh said, "I would hope we are. We better be. We're seven more weeks later down the road. That's the idea of going to practice and meetings and working hard, as hard as our guys do. Our guys work hard. I say it all the time. I never see anybody write it. One of these days you'll write that, about how hard our guys work and how hard our coaches work and how well they do. It's showing up on the field. That's the thing that you're proud of."
In that first game against the Bengals, the Ravens were held scoreless for the first 42-plus minutes before they ran off 16 consecutive points, the last score coming on Flacco's 80-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith. However, the Bengals answered less than one minute later as Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green for the game-winning 77-yard touchdown pass.
For the Ravens, the loss was defined by missed opportunities and costly mistakes, several from the wide receivers, who struggled to hold onto the ball.
"We know what's on the line with this game," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "It will be a big one for us. We need this one."
In their last three games, the Bengals were blown out by the New England Patriots, tied the struggling Carolina Panthers and then went to Indianapolis, where they were trounced by the Colts.
Against the Colts, the Bengals had just 135 total yards of offense and eight first downs. Punter Kevin Huber was called on 11 times and the Bengals had 10 three-and-outs. It marked the first time the Bengals were shut out since the final game of the 2009 season.
"We've got to circle the wagons — that's the thing," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told reporters after the game. "We are who we are. We've got what we've got. We've got to get together and we've got to figure out a way to continue to ride and go back and be a fundamentally sound, attacking football team again and get on it and go. This one's over, we've got to put it behind us. We'll learn a lot from this football game and it will be something that will be something that will help us grow."
Lewis said Monday that his players understand the magnitude of Sunday's game.
"Regardless of where we're playing, we know how important this game is," Lewis said. "Baltimore is playing very well right now. They're doing a good job both running the ball and throwing the ball, and obviously they're playing good on defense, being very explosive. [Pernell] McPhee's playing his tail off, and Suggs and [Elvis] Dumervil and [Haloti] Ngata, they've got the guys rolling up front. It's a big football game for us."
Lewis revealed little about the health of two of his top players, other than saying that Green, who has missed the past two games with a toe injury, has made a lot of progress and inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who was forced out of Sunday's game with a neck injury, is fine.
Harbaugh also wasn't expansive about the health of two of his starting offensive linemen — left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele — who have been sidelined with knee injuries. Expect more of the same throughout the week as both coaches cling to any perceived sense of competitive advantage.
"It's still the eighth game of the season," Harbaugh said. "It's not the last game of the season. It doesn't have that kind of drama to it, but it is important. You are in your division, your playing a team on the road, a team that's beaten us once at home already. It takes on the same urgency that you are talking about. That says it very well."