Eisenberg: Bengals Game Surprisingly Crucial


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The overall picture seems somewhat dire this week with the memory of Sunday's 22-17 loss in Seattle still fresh, and certainly, that was a disturbing encore to what seemed to be a transformative last-second win in Pittsburgh the week before.


Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, probably didn't have a football team in mind 400 years ago when he said, "Prosperity is not without fears and distastes," but he was right on the money about your Baltimore Ravens, wasn't he?

But the reality is the Ravens have kept their season on the rails despite their Jekyll-and-Hyde unpredictability. If they win Sunday, they will not only regain first place in their division, but they will also stand atop the entire AFC playoff picture, holding down the No. 1 seed. Any team would take those circumstances and that opportunity.

Conversely, a loss on Sunday would drop the Ravens to third place in the division and leave them on the fringe of the playoff field, their fourth straight trip to the postseason hardly assured.

Big difference, huh?

There are reasons to believe the Ravens will rebound. They're really good at that under John Harbaugh. Their most recent back-to-back losses occurred in October 2009. They've won 11 straight after a loss.

They've also won 13 of their last 14 in Baltimore, and if anything can be said about the 2011 Ravens so far, it's that the comforts of home suit them, as opposed to the discomforts of the road.

Of course, they also had a near-perfect record under Harbaugh against losing opposition before this season, and that statistical trend has gone the way of the 8-track, become outdated and useless. Lesson: Numbers only mean so much.

It should be noted that the strangeness of 2011 has extended well beyond the Ravens in the AFC, where the other top contenders have also experienced difficulties, leaving their fans confused. The Patriots just broke a two-game losing streak. The Jets are an up-and-down mess. The Steelers lost twice to the Ravens. The Chargers are melting down.

The Bengals, who have the same record as the Ravens, have been more consistent than most. They now rate as the NFL's biggest surprise, holding up better than the flagging Bills and Lions.

It's as if Lewis has taken them by the collar and shaken them out of a stupor. Their familiar cast of characters (Chad Ochocinco, Carson Palmer, etc.) is gone, replaced by a young team playing rugged defense and getting solid quarterbacking from a rookie.

And regardless of the condition they're in, they always pose a matchup problem for the Ravens, their cover-2 pass defense giving Joe Flacco fits. He has thrown two touchdown passes and nine interceptions against them over the past two seasons as the Ravens have lost three of four. Those are sobering numbers.

Flacco's comfort level has palpably risen lately, since the shotgun, which he obviously likes, became a larger part of the offense halfway through the Arizona game on Oct. 30.

But this game will say a lot about his consistency, and for that matter, say a lot about the Ravens as a whole. I have the feeling the outcome will be seen in hindsight as vitally important, one way or the other.

John Eisenberg covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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