It was voiced as early as this summer when the team was together for the first time. As the Ravens outlined their goals for the upcoming season and talked about winning the AFC North, the Cincinnati Bengals were never far from their minds.
"It was like, 'We can't lose to Cincinnati anymore. That has to end this year,'" recalled weak-side linebacker Zachary Orr. "What better time to do it than right now?"
The Ravens have gotten the best of the Pittsburgh Steelers in recent years. They've dominated the Cleveland Browns during the John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco era. Yet, the Bengals are a primary reason the Ravens haven't won the AFC North since 2012.
Cincinnati has beaten the Ravens in five straight meetings, prompting Terrell Suggs this week to compare the Bengals to "that kid you have to fight every day until you win." Of the Ravens' 22 projected starters for Sunday's clash with the Bengals (3-6-1) at M&T Bank Stadium, only nine of them have taken part in a Ravens' victory over Cincinnati.
The last time the Ravens beat the Bengals was Nov. 10, 2013, and they needed overtime to do it.
"We're all tired of losing to the Bengals all the time," said Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, who is 0-4 in his career against Cincinnati.
For the Ravens, Sunday presents the opportunity to end that frustrating five-game losing streak to their rival, while all but eliminating the Bengals from postseason contention. The Steelers' victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Thanksgiving night also means the Ravens (5-5) have to beat the Bengals to stay in first place in the division.
"They have always been tough for us as long as I have been here — I'm sure before that as well," Harbaugh said of Cincinnati. "It is a rivalry game, a division game. We have to find a way to beat them. If we do not start beating the Bengals, then we are not going to win any division championships. That is especially true this year."
As Harbaugh said several times this week, the Ravens are down to a six-game season. It's only fitting in this roller coaster year that two of those games, Sunday and the Jan. 1 regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium, will test the Ravens against a team they haven't figured out a way to beat.
The Ravens entered the 2013 regular-season finale against the Bengals needing a win and some help to make the playoffs. Instead, Cincinnati ran off 17 consecutive fourth-quarter points in its 34-17 win, ending the Ravens' Super Bowl defense and their five-year postseason streak.
They had a chance to avenge that defeat in the regular-season opener the following year. Steve Smith Sr., in his debut with the team, caught an 80-yard touchdown to give the Ravens a fourth-quarter lead. Less than a minute later, the Bengals' A.J. Green answered with a 77-yard, game-winning score.
When the Ravens traveled to Cincinnati about five weeks later, Smith thought he had scored the game-winning touchdown. But it was called back by a penalty and the Ravens lost again.
They blew two fourth-quarter leads to the Bengals last September and then couldn't beat Cincinnati in the season finale in January. Ten of the past 12 matchups between the two teams have been decided by eight points or less. The Bengals have made all the key plays late in the recent ones.
"Five straight is five straight. Numbers do not lie," Suggs said. "They have kind of had our number. We are going to see what we can do to change that."
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and starting quarterback Andy Dalton both downplayed this week their recent success against the Ravens. They also know that several of the important elements from those victorious Bengals teams won't be on the field Sunday.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who always seemed to be a step ahead of the Ravens with his play calling, is now the head coach of the Browns, and the Bengals offense hasn't been the same without him. Complementary receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones left in free agency this offseason, and Green, who has probably killed the Ravens more than any other active player, is out with a hamstring injury. Running back Giovani Bernard is also sidelined after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in last week's loss to the Buffalo Bills.
In a conference call with Baltimore-area reporters this week, Lewis joked that the banged-up Bengals still planned to show up at M&T Bank Stadium for the game. Cincinnati, which hasn't won since beating the Browns on Oct. 23, understands that it probably needs to win out to make the playoffs for a sixth straight year.
"We feel like we have to win as many as we can," Dalton said. "Obviously, it starts this week. You have a division game that matters even more."
Dalton hasn't been flawless in leading the Bengals to wins over the Ravens. In nine career meetings, he's thrown 10 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions against them. But Dalton has engineered several late drives and whenever he's needed a big play, Green has been able to make it against an overmatched Ravens' secondary.
Beyond that, the Bengals have used a variety of formations to keep the Ravens' off balance and they've been able to establish a running game, which other Ravens' opponents have struggled to do. During the five-game win streak, the Bengals are averaging 106.4 rushing yards per game against the Ravens.
"The four times that I've played them, pretty much, the game plan has been the same," Mosley said. "We've seen pretty much the same style offense. Even though they've got a new coordinator, they still have the same type of plays. The big thing for us is … don't beat ourselves. We've got to be great in situational football and try and cause turnovers, and always stop the run."
On defense, the Bengals' cover-2 scheme has flummoxed Flacco, who has gotten impatient at times and made costly mistakes. In 15 career games against Cincinnati, Flacco has thrown 15 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions. He's gotten picked off at least once in five straight matchups. Lewis, the former architect of the Ravens' record-setting defense, certainly appears to have Flacco's number, so much so that the Ravens quarterback said it's been a topic of conversation in meetings this week.
"The last couple years, we have just gotten down on them early and let them play with a lead," Flacco said. "I remember a couple years ago, we were pretty much a two-minute offense the whole second half. These games are all tough. They have been a good defense — talented defense, well-coached. When you look at the film this year, they are still playing good. Teams that have beat them have hit big plays on them. We probably have not been able to do that as much as we would like until the end of games when we have been in desperation mode."
Flacco and his teammates know that had better change. When they spoke months ago about reclaiming the AFC North title, they talked about taking down their nemesis from Cincinnati to do it. The first of two opportunities has arrived.
"They definitely have the [upper hand] on us right now," wide receiver Kamar Aiken said. "I feel like it's going to change this year. I feel like this is the year. If it's not this year, I don't know when it's going to happen."
Five straight losses
As the Ravens prepared for Sunday's matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, they lamented losing five straight games to their AFC North rival, many in agonizing fashion.
Date; Location; Score; Key play;
12/29/2013; Cincinnati; 34-17; Andy Dalton's 1-yard TD breaks fourth-quarter tie and starts streak of 17 unanswered points;
9/07/2014; Baltimore; 23-16; Bengals foil Ravens in opener thanks to A.J. Green's go-ahead, 77-yard score with 4:58 remaining;
10/26/2014; Cincinnati; 27-24; A late Steve Smith Sr. 80-yard, go-ahead touchdown is nullified on an offensive pass interference call;
9/27/2015; Baltimore; 28-24; Green catches two touchdowns in the final seven minutes, including the go-ahead 7-yarder with 2:10 to play;
1/03/2016; Bengals; 24-16; Jeremy Hill's 38-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter proves too much to overcome;
By the numbers
A look at how the Bengals have beaten the Ravens in five straight meetings.
Wins; 5; 0;
Total points; 136; 97;
Fourth-quarter points; 52; 43;
Avg. passing yards; 278.2; 277.2;
Touchdown passes/INTs; 8/6; 5/9;
Avg. rushing yards; 106.4; 68.6;
Turnovers; 8; 10;
Sacks; 7; 7;