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13 Ravens opponents in 13 days: Cincinnati Bengals

In eager anticipation of the 2013 NFL season, Baltimore Sun blogger and reporter Matt Vensel will take a daily look at one of the 13 opponents on the Ravens’ regular-season schedule. Today is the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Ravens are the back-to-back AFC North champions, but this year, the Cincinnati Bengals are the team many NFL talking heads believe will challenge the Ravens’ reign. The Bengals have drafted well, especially on offense, where Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are one of the NFL’s top quarterback-receiver tandems. They added more weapons for Dalton in April’s draft, and the defense should be formidable again. The Ravens host the Bengals at M&T; Bank Stadium in Week 10, ending a three-game stretch where they play all three division rivals. They head to Cincinnati in Week 17, the fourth straight year they play the Bengals in their season finale.

Recapping 2012: The Bengals finished 10-6 last season. It was their first back-to-back winning seasons in 30 years. They made it to the playoffs for the second straight year, too. They won seven of their final eight games to get in, but lost to the Houston Texans for the second straight postseason. Still, the Bengals, who ranked 12th in scoring offense and eighth in scoring defense, took another step forward. Dalton had 27 touchdown passes, 11 of them to Green, and defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson combined for 24 sacks.

Cha-cha-changes: The Bengals were able to keep most of their roster intact from last season, starting with the use of the franchise tag on Johnson. They signed former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, a longtime Ravens nemesis, to improve their already-potent pass rush. The Bengals added 10 players in the draft, starting with tight end Tyler Eifert, running back Giovanni Bernard and defensive end Margus Hunt, who were all chosen in the draft's first 53 picks.

The skinny: The Ravens are the AFC North favorites, but I definitely see the Bengals putting up a fight this season. Dalton may never become a great quarterback, but he is solid, and the Bengals adding Eifert and Bernard in the draft should aid his development. Green is one of the NFL’s top young receivers, a player who should give the Ravens problems. Ditto for Atkins, a disruptive 25-year-old defensive tackle who is already one of the NFL’s best players at his position, too. It’s possible the Bengals could have both a top-10 offense and top-10 defense in 2013.

Recent history: The Ravens are 6-4 against the Bengals in the Harbaugh era and had won four straight games before the Bengals won last year's season finale, a meaningless game in which starters from both teams were yanked from the game. The two teams opened the season against each other, too, and the Ravens whipped the Bengals, 44-13, at M&T; Bank Stadium.

Degree of difficulty: The Bengals believe they are ready to overtake the Ravens and win their first AFC North title since 2009. On paper, this might be their best team since that season, when Carson Palmer was still flinging passes to Chad Ochocinco. The Week 10 matchup at home will have a degree of difficulty of seven. The season finale, which could be played with the division on the line, will be a little tougher. Let’s say 7.5 out of 10.

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