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Baltimore Ravens

Ravens prepare for ‘most important game’ against Bengals, the team that rose as they fell in 2021

The Ravens do not want to talk about last season. They don’t even want to talk about last week.

Cornerback Marlon Humphrey almost turned this into a comedy bit Wednesday as he deflected questions that touched on the events of 2021 or on the 17-point lead the Ravens squandered Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.

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“So, I guess next question,” he said, drawing laughs as he raised his verbal stop sign for the fourth time, signaling his team’s tunnel vision on what’s ahead.

But this rhetorical dance hinted at a larger truth about the Ravens as they prepare to host the Cincinnati Bengals for a high-stakes AFC North clash on “Sunday Night Football.” Through four weeks of a fresh season, they have yet to escape the narratives flowing from their 2021 collapse. They have now lost five straight games at M&T Bank Stadium, once thought to be among the league’s most impregnable fortresses. They have lost seven straight games decided by a touchdown or less, an indication of their difficulties closing out quality opponents. Their pass defense has surrendered more yards than any other, just like last season. They’re still sweating over injuries to key players.

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This matchup with Cincinnati is the harshest possible reminder of all that still ails the Ravens. As they fell, the Bengals rose, building confidence by hanging twin 41-point games on the Baltimore defense and ultimately winning both the division and the conference championship. A year after they went 4-11-1, Joe Burrow and company played in the Super Bowl, hallowed ground on which Lamar Jackson and his mates have yet to tread. If the Ravens are to regain divisional supremacy, they’ll have to go through a Bengals team designed to prey on their flaws.

Though players mostly avoided pumping up its importance, Ravens coach John Harbaugh referred to the showdown with Cincinnati as “the most important game of the season so far.” He did not say it, but it’s the kind of game his team has not won for a while.

With that in mind, which of the negative trends confronting the Ravens are most important as they prepare to meet their nemesis?

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson dives for a first down while being tackled by Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson during a game Oct. 24, 2021, at M&T Bank Stadium.

Players heard numerous questions this week about their recent loss of home-field advantage. Though it’s true they have dropped five straight in Baltimore, an anomalous stretch for a team that has won 68% of its home games over 27 seasons, this is a broader trend around the NFL. Home-field advantage disappeared along with crowds in the pandemic-marred 2020 season, and it did not really come back in 2021, when home teams won just six more games than they lost. The Ravens went 10-7 at home in 2020 and 2021 and 9-7 on the road, so they’re in line with the times.

That context is no comfort to quarterback Lamar Jackson, who said the Ravens need to reassert themselves at home. “Absolutely, because the fans are paying their money to see us go out there and perform the right way, go out there and get W’s for them, not just us,” he said. “Of course, I feel some way, I feel some way about that, and I feel like the team does, too.”

The one-score losses, meanwhile, have plagued them as both hosts and visitors. In six of the seven straight, the Ravens held a second-half lead and could not mount a defensive stand when they needed it. Just as importantly, the grinding drives they used to blow games open in 2019 and 2020 were nowhere to be found. This was true Sunday, when the Bills scored the last 20 points of the game, outplaying the Ravens on both sides of the ball from late in the second quarter on.

“Yes, we need to get better in all those situations,” Harbaugh said. “We need to finish. We need to extend. The best defense is a great offense; it’s an offensive league. So, in the third and fourth quarters, the best way to win a game is to keep the defense off the field and extend the lead, and we’ve done that before.”

They almost did it with a 14-play drive in the fourth quarter against Buffalo, only for Jackson’s interception on fourth-and-goal — set up by Harbaugh’s much-debated call to go for it — to put them right back on the defensive. Such near misses have haunted them since the middle of last season.

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Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson watches from the bench as Tyler Bass kicks the game-winning field goal in the Bills' 23-20 win on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Their last two games against the Bengals were a different story. Even if we want to toss out the 41-21 shellacking from the day after Christmas because Jackson was injured, there’s no denying what the defending AFC champions did the last time they visited Baltimore. The Ravens were 5-1 at the time, coming off a dominant win over the Los Angeles Chargers. Jackson was making his case for a second Most Valuable Player trophy. Cincinnati had lost its last five games against the Ravens by a combined 104 points. But the Bengals played with no fear. They sacked Jackson five times. Burrow threw for 416 yards. “I think it was a big statement,” the 2020 No. 1 overall pick said afterward.

If the Ravens’ pass defense over the last two years has been a horror show, Burrow has played the final monster, aided by swift, strapping pass catchers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. He added 525 yards in Week 16 to his masterpiece in Baltimore.

How much will those two decisive beatings from 2021 be on the Ravens’ minds?

“The offensive line is completely rebuilt, so the matchups I’m going to be in, it’s a whole different squad,” defensive tackle Calais Campbell said. “Of course … you’re always going to remember how good they are. They earned the right last year, beat us pretty good. So it’s naturally going to be on your mind. But at the same time, it’s its own individual game.”

Humphrey said the Bengals “obviously have the best trio of wide receivers in the league” and a quarterback with the guts to play to their strengths. “Joe Burrow — what he does best, to me, other than most quarterbacks, is he just thinks, ‘My guy is better than yours,’” Humphrey explained. “And whether you’re covered or not, it’s just like the ball is coming up and it’s there, and his guys come down with those passes a lot, honestly.”

He had a close-up view in Week 7 last season when Chase grabbed eight passes for 201 yards, including an 82-yard catch and run on which Chase spun out of Humphrey’s grasp. The game had been close to that point, but Cincinnati never looked back.

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The Ravens’ secondary, bolstered by the return of cornerback Marcus Peters and the addition of safety Marcus Williams, is better equipped to meet the challenge this time around. For all the yards they have surrendered this year, they at least lead the league with 10 forced turnovers. Humphrey, Peters and Williams have combined for six interceptions and three fumble recoveries. They hope to add to that total against the Bengals, who turned the ball over just once in the two meetings last year.

The Ravens know the preseason hype about their secondary — Pro Football Focus ranked it best in the league — is meaningless if they cannot hold their own against players such as Burrow, Chase and Higgins.

“To look up there and be eating lunch and see 32nd [ranked pass defense], you’re just like … It’s great to see, because I like to stay humble, but we’re still trying to jell together,” Humphrey said. “We really want to get that 32nd down. It’ll be a tough road, but I’m really excited for it, especially with this bunch coming in. We’ll definitely all have our hands full.”

With the Ravens, Bengals and Cleveland Browns tied at 2-2 and 13 games to go, there’s not much to say about the AFC North standings. But the Ravens know there are missed opportunities baked into their .500 record, and that’s what eats at them. They have trailed for a total of 14 seconds in their two losses.

Humphrey did not enjoy staring up at the televisions in the team cafeteria this week as ESPN commentators shook their heads at the Ravens’ mishaps.

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“I don’t really look at standings too much, but it was definitely on my mind when I ate [breakfast] this morning and it was right there. So, do I care? Kind of,” Humphrey said. “I just feel like we’re better … What I don’t like is it looks bad on the players, but ultimately, it looks bad on the coaches that are coaching us, and I know they’re putting us in great positions; we’ve just got to execute. … If I give my all and I fail, I’m OK with that. But if I don’t execute, that’s what really keeps me up at night.”

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Week 5

BENGALS@RAVENS

Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 3 1/2


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