It's official, we have a winner in the barstool debate about which player the Ravens can least afford to lose.
Actually, since that answer is obvious, the correct barstool question is which player other than quarterback Joe Flacco can the Ravens least afford to lose?
Drumroll, please …
It is cornerback Jimmy Smith, who left Sunday's game in Cincinnati with a sprained foot and will be out "a few weeks," Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday. Not. Good. News.
The Ravens have used their depth to withstand injuries to several starters this year, sometimes finding prospective puzzle pieces in the process. For instance, rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore had to make his first start well ahead of schedule Sunday after Owen Daniels underwent knee surgery last week, and he performed well.
But there's no one on the roster who can replicate what Smith brings to the defense. He's the Ravens' top pass defender and one of the best in the league, so adept at shutting down receivers that teams barely even throw his way.
One of Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome's mantras is "you can never have enough corners," but the team has proceeded with a thin margin for error (or injury) at the position this year. Without Smith, the only cornerbacks are Lardarius Webb, who didn't play until October because of a back injury; Dominique Franks, whom the team cut earlier; and Chykie Brown, a healthy scratch in recent weeks. Stay tuned.
Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton had plenty of open receivers to target after Smith left Sunday's game, and Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns Sunday, so the Ravens are facing a daunting task Sunday in Pittsburgh.
The Ravens would also be in trouble if they lost wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., who is carrying a heavy playmaking load. Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda is similarly invaluable.
But other than Flacco, Jimmy Smith is the one they can least afford to lose. They'll be counting the days until he returns.
One of the great unwritten, unprovable theorems about the NFL is the team that needs a game more usually wins it.
I happen to buy into that, and it certainly was the case Sunday in Cincinnati.
As much as the Ravens wanted to win to put some distance between themselves and the pack in the AFC North, the Bengals needed a win more. They were 0-2-1 in their previous three games and would have fallen to third place in the division, a game-and-half behind the Ravens, if they had lost again. Instead, with the win, they're in first place.
Now the Ravens are playing the Steelers Sunday, begging the question: Who needs this one more?
Both teams are 5-3, a half-game behind the Bengals. The Steelers don't want to lose at home and see the Ravens sweep their home-and-home series. The Ravens don't want to stack consecutive road losses against divisional rivals.
Call it a jump ball. Both really need the win. The theorem gets a rest this week.
Speaking of the AFC North, it appears all teams were pretty much created equal. The first-place Bengals and last-place Browns have the same win total.
As the season unfolds, I think the team that fares best on the road will prevail.
The Bengals, Ravens, Steelers and Browns are a combined 12-3-1 at home, so they're good protecting their respective houses. But they've only combined for six road wins out of 14 opportunities.
Going forward, keep track of who "breaks serve" and wins on the road, especially in divisional games. That's going to be a major difference-maker.
I'm sure Bernard Pierce was unhappy about being a healthy scratch Sunday, but he can't complain. Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro are plainly outperforming him. Forsett's per-carry average of 5.5 yards is a whopping 1.9 yards more than Pierce's 3.6 average, and Taliaferro is averaging a healthy 4.4 yards per carry while exhibiting a nice knack for reaching the end zone.
The Ravens defense is taking heat for allowing the Bengals to drive 80 yards to a winning touchdown Sunday. But don't leave the offense out of the calculus of what went wrong late in the game.
On the first play after the Ravens took a 21-20 lead, the defense forced a turnover and the offense started a series at the Cincinnati 40 with six minutes, 12 seconds to play. The momentum was all Baltimore's and some Cincinnati fans even headed for the parking lots.
A couple of first downs would have nearly sealed the outcome, and the Ravens offense had moved the chains for much of the game. But it failed to generate a first down this time. Justin Tucker kicked a field goal, and the Bengals got the ball back with plenty of time to generate the winning score. It was just the Ravens' second-three-and-out of the game, but it came at a bad time.