Were the Bengals better than the Ravens Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium? That's an easy one.
The Ravens lost by 24 points, their widest margin of defeat since Lamar Jackson became their starting quarterback almost three years ago. In a nutshell, they couldn't run the ball, couldn't stop the pass, couldn't sack the quarterback, didn't tackle well and fell apart late.
Obviously, the Bengals were better. But ARE they better? That's a very different question, much harder to answer. We don't know yet.
The true measure of a high-caliber NFL team crystallizes not on a single afternoon, but over time, through the many weeks of a season.
You can make a statement on a single afternoon, as the Bengals surely did Sunday. But will that statement hold up?
The statement the Ravens made the week before, with their demolition of the Chargers, certainly didn't hold up Sunday.
The Ravens beat the Chargers when they brought their "A" game, the matchup was favorable (i.e., the Chargers ranked last in the league in rushing defense) and their many injuries didn't seem to matter.
But the Ravens lost to the Bengals when they brought less than their "A" game, the matchup was thornier (i.e., the Bengals have a stifling rushing defense) and their subtractions stood out like neon.
So we've seen the Ravens play their best and close to their worst, and what usually happens – to any team, not just them – is they'll eventually settle somewhere in between.
The truth comes into focus over the long haul, not on any given Sunday. And the Ravens have been exceptional over the long haul with Jackson as their quarterback, winning 35 of his 44 regular-season starts.
They've won at home and on the road, in good weather and bad, when they played well and didn't, when dealing with injuries, when the odds seemed long.
They've won – steadily – when they were the hunted.
No wonder Bengals Coach Zac Taylor anointed Sunday's win as nothing less than the culmination of their organization's years-long rebuild – yup, in Week 7. Beating the Ravens is a genuine accomplishment, especially in Baltimore.
Now the Bengals are beginning their own journey of trying to prove themselves over the long haul. Experts expected them to show modest improvement in 2021, but they've soundly beaten the Ravens and Steelers and grabbed first place in the AFC North. It's impressive. But can they keep it up? We'll see.
Keeping it up means doing what the Ravens have done with Jackson as their quarterback. Winning when you play your best is one thing. But can you do it when you don't bring your "A" game? When YOU are the hunted? When you're dealing with adversity in some form, such as injuries?
Proving yourself over the long haul means hanging tough, enduring hardship. It's a tangible quality. The Ravens have consistently exhibited the requisite mental strength and resourcefulness.
When they lost back-to-back games early in 2019 and looked like they were in trouble, they reeled off 12 straight wins to land the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
After a three-game losing streak shoved them to the fringes of the playoff picture in the middle of last season, they forged a five-game winning streak and earned a playoff bid for the third straight year.
After getting whipped Sunday, it's clear they have to run the ball better, tackle way better and defend the pass more consistently. They have some serious problem-solving to do, and their run of injuries, which continues, only makes the job harder.
But they're still prominent in the AFC playoff race with a 5-2 record and they'll be favored in their first three games after the bye against the 3-3 Vikings, the 1-6 Dolphins and the 3-4 Bears.
It won't be a surprise if the Ravens-Bengals rematch on Dec. 26 in Cincinnati turns out to be huge.
If the Bengals complete the sweep with a reprise of Sunday's performance, the Ravens will have no choice but to tip their caps. But it also won't be a surprise if the rematch unfolds quite differently.