Ravens can deliver knockout punch to Bengals this week

The three-team battle for the AFC North has yet to materialize and the Ravens can make sure it doesn't. A day after letting a significant opportunity get away in a 27-17 loss to the league-best Dallas Cowboys, the Ravens turned their attention to Sunday's home matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, and a chance to all but end the season of one of their biggest rivals.

Cincinnati not only dropped a game to the Buffalo Bills Sunday to fall to 3-6-1, but the Bengals also lost two of their top offensive players, running back Giovani Bernard (knee) and wide receiver A.J. Green (hamstring), to significant injuries. One more loss and the Bengals will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.


Applying the knockout blow would be a nice move for the Ravens, who have dropped five straight games to Cincinnati and haven't beaten Marvin Lewis' team since November 2013. Sunday's game carries far more significance than that, as the Ravens (5-5) are now deadlocked with the Pittsburgh Steelers for first place in the AFC North.

"If you look at the rest of the season, it's a six-game season," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "In some ways, this is like our opener."


As rivals, the Ravens and Steelers are always on each other's minds, but that will be especially true over the final month and a half of the regular season. The Ravens have the slight edge because they beat the Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium earlier this month. However, the Steelers have the easier remaining schedule and a rematch with the Ravens on their home field on Christmas Day.

Any way you look at it, the Ravens, despite a frustrating loss to the Cowboys in a game many players believed they should have won, remain in position to accomplish everything they set out to when the regular season began.

"We know that everything is right in front of us. This is our opportunity to go win the division," Harbaugh said. "Basically, we won the Pittsburgh game to tie the division at 4-4. Since then, we've each beaten Cleveland and lost to Dallas. So we're even, and there are six games left, and the same thing goes for Cincinnati, which is behind both of us. We're all going to play each over the course of the next six games. So it's going to come down to that. It's probably what we knew going into the season. It was going to come down to a division game, and that's what it's going to come down to. So I'm excited about that, and our guys are as well."

For the Ravens, the process of moving on to the Bengals' game started in an otherwise frustrated locker room after the loss to Dallas. Veteran safety Eric Weddle addressed his teammates, reminded them that the Ravens were still in first place and suggested that the team should emerge from the Cowboys' loss with confidence after outplaying Dallas for most of the first half.

The message seemed to resonate even as the players lamented their third consecutive road loss.

"I think we're fine, honestly," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "Obviously, you want to win every time you step on the field, but we know that's not realistic. We're still in a good spot. We're leading the division. We control our own destiny. That's the way you want it. We have another division game and if we take care of business there, we'll get a better shot at it. We just have to continue to grow and become better offensively. I think our defense is playing up to par."

None of the team's leaders believed the Ravens played poorly in the loss to the Cowboys, but all of them acknowledged they didn't play nearly well enough to upend the league's hottest team on its home field. For most of the first half, which ended with the score tied at 10, the Ravens did pretty much what they wanted to do.

On offense, they sustained a few drives, avoided turning the ball over and even established a running game. On defense, the Ravens stopped the run, put some pressure on rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and forced punts on the Cowboys' first four drives.

But the Ravens couldn't maintain any of those elements and were overwhelmed in the second half. The offense didn't do nearly enough in the little time it was on the field. The defense found no answers for Prescott and the Cowboys' short-passing game, allowing points on five straight possessions.

While acknowledging his team was still making too many mistakes — the Ravens were assessed a season-high 136 penalty yards Sunday — Harbaugh stressed he does see his team improving. The offense, in particular, has looked a little better over the past two games. The defense has been solid all year and should benefit from the healthy return of strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil (foot) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (back). Both players have a chance to face the Bengals.

"When you do things well, you build confidence. It's simple," Harbaugh said. "But also you work hard and that builds confidence, as well. Our guys have done that, and they've also had a lot of success at times and done a lot of good things, especially our defense, our special teams. And I feel like our offense is improving. I feel like we're getting better at the things that we're trying to do right now. But it's all about the next game."

The Bengals losing two of their top players could benefit the Ravens the most because the two teams play twice over the final six weeks. However, Cincinnati has found myriad ways to beat the Ravens in recent years, so it would be foolish to discount Lewis' team. The Ravens also still have home games against the surging Miami Dolphins, who are 6-4 after winning five straight games, and the Philadelphia Eagles (5-5).


They'll have to go on the road and face the AFC-best New England Patriots (8-2), the Bengals and the Steelers.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has one game left against a team that currently has a winning record: a Dec.4 matchup with the New York Giants (7-3) at Heinz Field. The rest of their schedule is hardly a cakewalk, however, as the Steelers play on the road on Thanksgiving against the Indianapolis Colts (5-5), followed by road games against the Bills (5-5) and Bengals, and home matchups with the Ravens and Browns to close the regular season.


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