Eisenberg: Bengals Matchup a Must-Win

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Last Sunday's game against the Patriots was a big event for the Ravens. It gave them a chance to see how they measured up against a superpower. CBS assigned its top announcers and broadcast the game in other markets.

This Sunday's game against the Bengals doesn't have the same outwardly exciting backdrop. The Bengals have had just one winning season since 1990, and the Ravens play them twice a year in the AFC North.

But for the Ravens, this Sunday's game is actually more pressure-packed. Last week's was a game they wanted to win; this week's is a game they have to win.

You forge a winning season in the NFL by not slipping at the wrong time and giving away games you're expected to win – as opposed to tougher toss-up games that could go either way.

The New England game clearly was one of the latter. A win would have constituted a bonus of sorts for the underdog Ravens, who almost pulled it off. But in the end, going on the assumption that they were bound to lose eventually in 2009, the outcome was not unexpected, the defeat relatively benign.

This week, the stakes are different. The Ravens are in the "should win" position, favored by eight points even though the Bengals have the same record (3-1) and look to be improved. A loss, with so many tough games ahead, would haunt Baltimore all season.

The Ravens haven't always fared well when they're expected to win. Even during some of their better seasons, they've lost games as the favorite. It's not that unusual; upsets befall every team in every sport, especially in a league as balanced as the NFL.

But since John Harbaugh became their head coach, the Ravens have done a superb job in games they're supposed to win. They've lost just seven of 23 regular season and postseason games under Harbaugh, and look at those losses -- three to Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh, three on the road against top-tier teams (Giants, Colts, Patriots) and one at home against a Titans team that ended up with the AFC's best record. Not one clunker in the bunch. Not one upset.

That consistency is a big reason why the Ravens have emerged as one of the NFL's top teams.

"I treat that like a no-hitter. You don't talk about it because you might jinx it," Terrell Suggs said this week. "We're playing good ball. You don't talk about it. You just keep trucking on. We're going to try to go 15-1."

What has changed for the Ravens to become so upset-free?

"I don't know," Suggs said. "I mean, we have a pretty relaxed locker room. No one is all uptight and worried. We just go out and try to make plays."

Ten-year veteran Kelly Gregg also stumbled trying explain the team's consistency.

"It's hard to say," he said. "Honestly, we should be in every game with the guys we have and our coaching staff. We expect to win every game. That's the way we prepare and the way we're coached."

A lot of the credit goes to Harbaugh. While he lets his offensive and defensive coordinators run their units, he is responsible for the team's mindset, for having the players ready to go on Sundays. And while he doesn't like to give away his secrets, if you listen closely, you get a glimpse of his methodology.

Asked earlier this week about his team having to come back from a loss for the first time this year, Harbaugh said, "How you respond to a loss is critically important. But how you respond to a win is really important, too. You go out and win a big game and everyone starts talking about how great you are. How do you respond to that? Success can be adversity."

A coach who says success can be adversity is a coach intent on having his team never let down at the wrong time.

After the Ravens struggled to beat San Diego in Week Two, Harbaugh put them through hard practices – the hardest since training camp, Trevor Pryce said -- even though they were playing the winless Browns that week. The Ravens won, 34-3.

The Bengals won't succumb so easily. They would be undefeated if not for a fluke loss on a last-second play in their season opener.

Still, a Cincinnati win would be a surprise, an upset, the first of its kind for the Harbaugh-era Ravens. That's a first they want to keep putting off for as long as possible.

John Eisenberg* 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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