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Game Preview: Bengals vs. Ravens

The Ravens have waited long enough.

After eight months to shake off the frustrations of last season and rebuild a playoff contender, the Ravens start off the season with a test against the AFC North rival Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium.

"We're ready to go," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's the beginning of a new year. It hasn't started yet, but that's going to be the start of it this Sunday, and we're excited and we're confident."

The season opener features a matchup against two teams who have won the last three division crowns, and both teams have championship aspirations again.

"It's just a smash-mouth division, and we have to be able to come out and play physical and also be able to run the ball and throw the ball," linebacker Daryl Smith said. "It all comes down to who executes the best and makes the most plays at the end of the game."

Three Matchups To Watch

CB Jimmy Smith vs. WR A.J. Green
This is tabbed as the main event for Sunday's matchup. Green has already established himself as one of the premier wide receivers in the game, and Smith is entering the prime of his career after a standout season in 2013. Smith is a big-bodied cornerback who is built to defend a premier playmaker like Green, and the Ravens will need Smith to be at his best to keep Cincinnati's top target at bay.

OLB Terrell Suggs vs. LT Andrew Whitworth
Generating a pass rush on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is critical for the defense, as the Ravens want to prevent the Bengals quarterback from getting too comfortable in the pocket. Suggs is the leader of the pass rush, but he's had a tough time against Whitworth in the past. Games in the division are often won up front, and this will be a battle to watch.

WR Steve Smith Sr. vs. CB Terence Newman
This is a new start for the veteran receiver. Smith drew rave reviews throughout training camp and showed that he still has plenty left in the tank. Smith has a history of playing his best in big games, and a debut for his new team is one of the bigger games he's played in recent years. He's a key piece of the offense and the Bengals will have to pay plenty of attention to him.

Three Keys To The Game

Establish The Run
The Ravens were the NFL's top running team in the preseason, averaging 171 yards per game on the ground. The offensive line was able to open big holes for the backs and the running game overall seemed in sync. New Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak builds his system around the running game, and that will be no different in Baltimore. This game is a big opportunity for third-year running back Bernard Pierce who will start in place of the suspended Ray Rice. The Ravens are counting on Pierce to be the bell cow in the offense, and he's out to prove he's up to the task.

Protect Joe Flacco
A problem for the Ravens last year was that Flacco was constantly under duress. The Bengals pressured him throughout the regular-season finale in Cincinnati, and he was never able to get into a rhythm. In addition to opening holes for the running backs, the line also kept Flacco upright in the preseason. The Ravens need Flacco protected and then he can go to work.

Keep Bernard Contained
Bengals running back Giovani Bernard has the ability to break open a play at any point. He's an elusive back – similar to Rice – and he's a threat running the ball or catching out of the backfield. The Ravens have to keep him inside the pocket and prevent him from getting in space against linebackers. If Bernard is limited, then the pressure will be on Dalton to win the game, and the Ravens have limited him in the past.

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