Some sports name three stars of the game after the game. I'll do that one better: I'm going to name them before the Ravens even play. These will be the three stars of the game when the Ravens travel to Cincinnati in search of payback following a Week 1 loss to the rival Bengals.
1. OLB Elvis Dumervil
Dumervil somewhat lived up to his last appearance in this space, when a late sack gave him 1.5 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Cincinnati, Dumervil will again be one of the primary beneficiaries of a Ravens pass rush that simply seems to be sending more players than most offensive lines are capable of blocking.
The Bengals' right tackle, Andre Smith, was a disaster against the Indianapolis Colts a week ago. He'll be primarily tasked with blocking Dumervil, something he may not do as well at as he did seven weeks ago. A lot has changed since then for both Dumervil, who's in the midst of his best stretch as a Raven, and the defense as a whole.
Cincinnati's rookie center Russell Bodine will need help against whoever is lined up inside — be it tackles Haloti Ngata, Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, or even Pernell McPhee, an outside linebacker who lines up all over the defense.
That would leave Dumervil and fellow outside linebacker Terrell Suggs — who has also found his pass-rush groove — alone on the outside with tackles and tight-end help. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth has handled Suggs in the past, but current form favors Dumervil against Smith
Another multi-sack game for Dumervil would be his third straight, and it would give him sacks in five of his past seven games. This will be another two-sack performance, one of which will cause a fumble. In what could be a defensive battle, turnovers will be huge.
2. Running back Bernard Pierce
Pierce's slow start against the Bengals in Week 1 went a long way toward veteran Justin Forsett taking over as the team's lead rusher, but his return to prominence could come when the Ravens face Cincinnati a second time.
After two weeks of holding opponents under 100 yards rushing, the Bengals have barely kept teams under 150 yards on the ground since. Tennessee (149 yards rushing), New England (220), Carolina (147) and Indianapolis (171) have all established the run against Cincinnati in recent weeks.
Injuries have hit the Bengals all over the defense, and while linebacker Vontaze Burfict is probable to return this week, their issues against the run seem to be about more than just one missing player.
Pierce, who has scored in short-yardage situations in each of the past two games, should continue to get those opportunities. And he's also gotten enough carries in recent weeks that it's not inconceivable for him to finally break the big run that's been missing since his rookie season. His 85 rushing yards and third touchdown in three games will lead all Ravens runners.
3. Kicker Justin Tucker
To fulfill my prediction of a 26-23 Ravens victory, Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker is required to make four field goals at Paul Brown Stadium. I don't think that's too much of an ask given how stingy these teams were in their first meeting, when the kickers combined for five field goals and could have made more.
The Ravens' red-zone defense enters as the best in the NFL, but Cincinnati's 10th-best red-zone defense is stout as well. For a team that allows the 31st-most yards in the league to be 18th in scoring defense means the Bengals tighten up when it matters.
There enters Tucker. He's made four of five career field goals at Paul Brown Stadium, with the only miss a 45-yarder in the meaningless Week 17 loss in 2012. He made all three kicks in Cincinnati last year and will be kicking in the warmest weather he ever has at the Bengals' home stadium.
Tucker will connect on all four of his field goal tries Sunday, including a late kick that gives the Ravens the victory and puts him in contention for AFC Special Teams Player of the Week.